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Commentary Article March 24th, 2022
Delivery • Justice • Legitimacy

Better care for Native American children

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How can governments better support Native and historically underserved communities? Sheila Lamb recommends integrating historical context & cultural competency trainings, and working with and alongside community

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"Working with @CarltonCountyMN as part of @CPI_foundation's Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, Nanda-noojimo is bringing voices of survivors forward to work on prevention & address issues that impact the Native community with Social Services."

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Sheila Lamb calls for major change in #childwelfare and other biased systems, recommending a trauma response approach, creating fair practices and laws that consider abuse as prosecutable, and assessing best practices and disparities on an ongoing basis

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In 2021, CPI launched the Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, a 10-week program during which participating governments worked to dismantle inequitable power dynamics and enable community-driven change. During the cohort, Carlton County worked on strengthening connections with the community and recommended that all county workers receive DEI training, as well as that the county allot $10,000 to incentivize residents in community-building.

Being a Native American in today’s society can be challenging at best. Being an advocate and elected official who is not white can be overwhelming at times. The added desire to work within systems to create change especially for those of us who have felt the pain of systemic racism and bias, leaves advocates feeling as though it’s almost impossible. Yet, I find myself trying to continuously balance my various roles while still clinging to the hope that change that benefits the public can be created through partnerships, strong leadership, and determination. This work encompasses everything - from boots on the ground to grassroots efforts to working on county, state, and federal levels to break through systemic racism and barriers.

I believe major systemic change is required to reimagine the child welfare system so that it better serves Native, BIPOC, marginalized, and minority communities.

One area of particular importance to me is the child welfare system. As an advocate, I have been working with clients who have had dealings with the child welfare system for over ten years. As a domestic violence survivor, I have also had my own experience, which showed lack of support and justice. When I was placed on the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, I chose the child welfare system as one I wanted to deeply address. This system is fraught with bias that has impacted Native American communities. I believe major systemic change is required to reimagine the child welfare system so that it better serves Native, BIPOC, marginalized, and minority communities.

Gaps in the system: A history of child welfare and Native Americans

Before we can speak to solutions, it is important to look at the history of the child welfare system and Native American communities. Historically, governmental systems, including child welfare, were set with the premise that children and at-risk adults would have support in place to ensure a good quality of life. Sadly, we have also seen historically that it is these same systems that have created an atmosphere of distrust. The Native American community has had generations of trauma created by the child welfare system. In 1978, the United States enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act to address some of these issues. Sadly, though ICWA has helped in many ways, Public Law 280 states, such as Minnesota, child abuse cases still fall under the jurisdiction of each county due to the lack of family court systems on reservations, lack of resources, and, yes, a lack of understanding of historical trauma.

Sex trafficking, rape, and domestic violence were not prevalent issues in Indian country prior to colonization. Should the rare individual become a perpetrator of such violence as rape, that individual would be beaten and exiled - or in some cases killed. Sex trafficking of Native Americans began with Christopher Columbus, when Native women and children were loaded onto ships and sold as slaves, including those used for sex. This trauma has continued to grow as rapes and sexual assaults continued through the boarding school and residential school era. Today, there have been more than 7,500 children's bodies have been found from the residential school era - and those numbers continue to increase. This system of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was also part of child welfare under the boarding school era. Children were removed from their homes and put in boarding schools, often resulting in death, illness, rape, and emotional damage. Sadly, the welfare system currently in place still creates these issues more often than anyone would like to admit. According to research, Native American children have the highest rate of abuse, sex trafficking, and sexual assault, with most abusers being identified as white. 

How can governments better support Native and historically underserved communities

The history above is that of Native Americans, but my community is not the only one that has fallen through the gaps in our child welfare system. Similar circumstances are often experienced by other groups of color, Individuals in poverty, minorities, and individuals with lower education rates are usually targeted as cited by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project. Governments should take actions to better serve these groups. Based on my personal and professional backgrounds, I recommend governments integrate the following practices into their welfare systems:

Integrate historical context and cultural competency trainings

Generally, historical context is not part of training among social workers and their agencies. Cultural competency training is almost unheard of despite the knowledge that can be gleaned from a full understanding of historical and cultural issues. By providing both historical training and cultural competency training, we can bridge gaps and decrease barriers. Understanding something as simple as a difference in handshakes can create an atmosphere of trust. For Native Americans, for example, shaking hands using only the fingertips is a sign of respect, as is not making eye contact for a lengthy period of time. Yet these aspects of our culture are often viewed as evasive or rude.

By understanding the history of Indigenous people, social workers can also develop better responses due to trauma based understanding. This response would help to build a framework that not only gives background information, but assists in how to appropriately respond to needs and barriers.

Working with and alongside the community

Consultation with impacted groups is a huge component in addressing disparities and accomplishing change. I have seen the power of working directly with impacted communities in my role as co-founder of Nanda-noojimo, a group that acts as a bridge to Native Americans who need assistance. Nanda-noojimo helps to address gaps, align clients with needed services, and provide support with court and civil litigation. In the future, we will also provide services such as talking circles, art therapy, and personal protection courses as our organization grows. A huge part of what we do is to bring voices forward that can impact legislation and accountability.

Working alongside the Carlton County Community and Family Initiatives Department, a dialogue started as a part of their participation in CPI’s Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, Nanda-noojimo is bringing voices of survivors forward to work on prevention and to address issues that impact the Native community with Social Services. Efforts such as this can have a profound impact on how children and their parents are treated within the system.

One of the largest conversations centers around being in the community before services are needed, abuse and trafficking prevention, and trust building. When we prevent abuse and exploitation, we reduce the strain on agencies and build stronger communities. Prevention reduces sex trafficking, sexual abuse, and domestic violence, which also ties in to Missing and Murdured Indigenous Relatives. As a member of the MMIW task force in Minnesota, child welfare issues showed a clear link to abuse and death of Native Americans who had been in the foster system themselves or had lost children to the system. Cultural competency and understanding the truth in history can change attitudes of social workers and create a healthier agency.

When we prevent abuse and exploitation, we reduce the strain on agencies and build stronger communities.

A call for major change in child welfare and other biased systems

Large scale systemic change is needed, and each state should have a strategic plan in place to address disparities. A successful national model would take a hard look at why and how social service gaps disproportionately impact BIPOC communities. That leaves the question of how to achieve this. My recommendations are:

  1. Identify gaps in service. This includes identifying unmet community needs, having boots on the ground to get to know community members before problems arise, and ensuring that community members know preventative services that are offered before they are needed.

  2. Identify each bias within the system and among those working in Child Welfare. This would include cultural competency training, historical trauma training, and training on decolonising the minds of individuals and the systems approach to child welfare as a whole.

  3. Create a trauma response approach. This can be achieved on many levels including changing laws that remove children from a parent who is being abused. Revicitimization occurs in these situations and can have life long mental health impacts on both child and parent. An abused parent and child could have individual and family counseling to address issues surrounding abuse they suffered within the home. The abused parent can take parenting classes and be required to have other support in place. If the abused parent and child are torn from each other, even on a temporary basis, damage that is unnecessary can create more victimization. Do not force restorative justice on victims. Create shelters that also allow family pets. Pets are often the one safe place for children and adults. By removing these issues and concerns, victims are more likely to come forward and ask for help.

  4. Create fair practices in addressing cases. Do not decide to ignore abuse situations because a parent has removed themselves and their children from a home with an abuser or because abuse didn’t warrant hospitalization. Any form of abuse, physical, mental, or sexual, will have life long impacts. When a parent or child discloses abuse to a mandated reporter, act on that information. Case overload is not an excuse to view one situation as less important than others.

  5. Create laws either in each state or on the Federal level that consider emotional and psychological abuse as prosecutable.

  6. Assess best practices, disparities, gaps, and systemic racism on an ongoing basis. Take complaints regarding social worker behaviors seriously. Look for patterns in those complaints and take action as needed.

Those six items are a good starting point, though incomplete. More is needed to address issues within the system and on all levels of government, including the educational system, judicial system, and health care. Enlisting community voices will help each agency to grow and become more proactive within their communities. Creating an atmosphere of trust allows those in need to feel organizations are safe and trustworthy. Change will not occur overnight, but it is possible if the willingness to create change is present. Listening to the voice of those most impacted will bring about that needed change. Native cultures always consider how decisions will affect the next seven generations. It is my hope and belief that together, we can create a better future for the next seven generations.

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Written by:

Sheila Lamb Co-founder, Nanda-noojimo
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