Forty-five years ago, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to address a crisis. Native American children were being removed from their homes at alarming rates.
Studies found that more than a quarter of all American Indian children were taken from their families, placed in foster care or put up for adoption — typically in non-Native households.
ICWA was designed to counteract decades of policies and systems that uprooted Native American children from their families and culture — from boarding schools, to the Indian Adoption Project, to the disproportionate removal of Native American children by child welfare agencies.
Minnesota even has its own version of the law, called the Minnesota Indian Family Protection Act, or MIFPA, that lawmakers strengthened this year in case ICWA is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case scheduled to be decided later this month.
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But while experts insist ICWA has helped, Native American children living in Minnesota remain 16 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
ICWA compliance still a problem
Nearly a half century after the law was passed, systemic bias still plagues the child welfare system, and many social workers are still not complying with it.
“I think that comes in because people don't understand why these laws are so important,” said Larissa Littlewolf, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member who co-directs the Tribal Training and Certification Partnership at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“They're told they have to check off this list, how do you comply with the law? Which is important! But I think that there is a need to know why, right? Like, why do we work with American Indian families differently than non-Indigenous families? Why do Indigenous families get these special protections?”
When social workers understand why these rules are in place, Littlewolf said, they are much more likely to act in “the spirit” of ICWA, and work to keep Native children close to home.
“They deserve their community. They deserve their identity. That's what's going to help them to be happy and healthy and whole.”
In 2021, Littlewolf and others at UMD launched a two-day training on ICWA that’s now required for all child welfare professionals across the state. Since it began, about 1,500 county and tribal social workers have gone through the training, which now gets an annual $1 million appropriation from the state. It’s the only program like it in the country.
To help participants understand why ICWA is so important, the training focuses first on what Littlewolf calls “heart work — understanding the historical trauma, the correct history of Indigenous families.”
To do that, community trainers walk participants through a history of U.S. government policies that were intended to break Native families apart. That includes nearly 100 years where Native kids were forced to attend boarding schools, where they were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing their culture. Abuse was rampant.
“And this wasn't just like hundreds of years ago. This happened to my grandparents,” community trainer Lynn Brave Heart told about a dozen social workers from around the state during an online training held last month. “Many tribes tried to hide their children in the woods to keep the government from coming and taking the kids.”
Another trainer, Kat Preuss, from the Upper Sioux Community in southwestern Minnesota, shared a story of her mom driving her grandma to visit the boarding school she attended in South Dakota.
“‘There's a swing in the back, can you go to that swing in the back?’” her grandma asked. “So my mom drove around, and sure enough, there was a swing there. ‘Do you want to go sit on it?’” her mom asked.
Her grandmother walked over and sat on the swing, and began to cry. “‘All my life I wanted to sit on this swing,’” she said. “‘But we were never allowed to.’”
“She finally got her chance when she was 72 years old,” Preuss said.
The training connects the dots from boarding schools, to the current overrepresentation of Native youth in the foster care system. It describes how historical trauma becomes contemporary trauma, which Preuss explained is reflected in the stark economic and health disparities that exist today.
“So all of that historical trauma has really done a number on our people. So when you're working with our Native American families, keep that in mind. It builds that understanding,” she said.
While compliance with ICWA has improved recently, last year the Minnesota Department of Human Services found that 21 out of 37 counties it reviewed failed to comply with specific requirements of the law.
When counties are out of compliance for two consecutive years, they lose state aid. That money used to get redirected to the general fund. Now it gets funneled to UMD to help pay for its ICWA training program.
St. Louis County was one of those counties penalized for failing to comply with the law. It’s now under a performance improvement plan with the state. The county now requires everyone working with children and families to take the training, regardless of what unit they work in.
“When people have that deeper understanding, we're able then to empathize more, and to show up in a way of compassion, understanding that there's this historical trauma that impacts families today,” said Nishah Dupuis, Indian Child Welfare Supervisor for St. Louis County.
Natalie Hanson, who’s worked as a social worker in St. Louis County for the past decade, said the training she took last month made her realize for the first time how she could be a part of the continuation of generational trauma.
“As a government worker, when I take a Native child and place them in a non-Native home, absent their culture, I'm perpetuating that trauma,” Hanson said.
The training helped reinforce for Hanson “why there are Indian Child Welfare placement preferences, and that we have to go through these steps to try to keep children connected to their culture. And when we don't do that, it's similar to the boarding school era."
Working to keep more Native kids connected to their families and their communities is more than simply reducing disparities, and complying with federal law, said Larissa Littlewolf. It’s about the very future of tribes.
“The children in our communities are our future leaders,” Littlewolf said. “They're our future nurses, doctors, culture carriers, language carriers, spiritual advisors.”