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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6What We Can Learn From Indigenous Peoples About What the Child Welfare System Should Be

Written by Sarah Kastelic, Ph.D., M.S.W. (Alutiiq), executive director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

In looking for inspiration about what a reformed child welfare system could be, we need look no further than some programs run by American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. In some tribal communities, like the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the Squamish Indian Tribe in Washington, there is a very different approach to child welfare.

It begins with an acknowledgement that parenting is hard and that at some point along the way most of us need some kind of help or support to raise our children. Child welfare systems can be structured with an array of services, both formal and informal, that are most heavily concentrated in prevention. The help that the vast majority of families need to stay out of the formal child welfare system is support meeting basic needs: financial assistance, food, housing, and employment. In fact, the vast majority of child welfare cases in mainstream society, and especially in tribal communities, are based on neglect, and the conditions that bring families into the child welfare system are poverty, untreated mental health issues, and parental substance use. The supports and services that most families need aren't even the purview of the formal child welfare system, but when these needs aren't met, families end up at risk for child maltreatment and come into contact with the child welfare system, often becoming entangled in the system for a prolonged period of time. The outcomes of this approach are dismal for children and for families.

In most tribal communities, the rich cultural heritage is the foundation for a flourishing, natural safety net that keeps children safe. Traditional beliefs about the sacredness of children, our collective responsibility to protect and nurture them, and culturally based child-rearing approaches create the conditions in which the well-being of children is the focus of the community. Child welfare isn't just a formal system that intervenes when parents aren't able to take care of their children. The well-being of children is ensured by community, and it's the responsibility of all community members to "have eyes on kids." Community members don't wait until there's a serious problem, like bruises or abandonment; community can "intervene" earlier. They can ask kids and parents how they're doing. They can ask parents who are struggling what kind of help they need. They can set standards for the acceptable care of children, and they can enforce them as a community. The concept of nonintervention—of neighbors, community members, and extended family looking the other way when there are signs that a family needs help—is a Western idea. How children and families in our community are faring is our business! As Native people, we know our communities are interdependent, every person is important, and we have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of one another, especially our most vulnerable citizens, children.   

In this approach, both community and the formal child welfare system are a resource to parents. Children have the right to their families. In many cases, with adequate support and services, parents can safely and effectively care for and nurture their children. When parents are not able to safely parent their children, an out-of-home placement is sought. The goal of a permanent placement for children who can't stay at home with their families is approached by looking at it through the eyes of the child. Good social work practice is to look first to extended family to care for a child. We don't need to replace the child's family with another family to provide quality care and a sense of belonging. Through family group conferencing, families are invited to contribute to the plan for how best to care for a child and identify the most appropriate placement. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has emphasized this approach since 1978. ICWA sets minimum standards for the removal of Native children and guides placement, considering the best interests of each individual child, in recognition of the importance of family, community, and culture.

So, if these tenets sound like something we want for all children and families, how do we get there? The Touchstones of Hope movement for reconciliation in child welfare provides a path forward. Touchstones provides principles and a process for reorienting child welfare away from a judgmental, adversarial system focused on child removal toward a recognition that when we ask individual parents to solve the structural problems like lack of housing, lack of mental health treatment, and unemployment in a case plan, we're setting them up for failure.

The Touchstones process involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous people truth-telling about the harm the child welfare system has done to families, acknowledging that a new path forward is necessary, restoring by making changes to redress harm and ensure it doesn't happen again, and relating by working respectfully together toward our vision of a new system. Used in both the United States and Canada, it's guided by five principles:

  • Self-determination—Indigenous people are in the best position to make decisions that affect their community.
  • Culture and language—These should be the foundation of theory, research, policy, and practice.
  • Holistic approach—It is important to recognize and reflect on the distinct realities of the whole community, including culture (traditions, spirituality, and social customs), language, environment, and socioeconomic factors.
  • Structural interventions—We must stand up to injustices and protect the rights of all people, including children and youth.
  • Nondiscrimination—Indigenous peoples should have equal access to resources and services that are responsive to their needs and their unique cultural context.      

Touchstones of Hope provides a framework for carrying out transformative visioning for a different kind of child welfare system and the required systems change to ultimately support child well-being and thriving families. We don't have to accept the status quo in our child welfare systems, and the tools we need are already available and in our communities.