Native Foster Crisis

State, University researchers seek solutions to disproportionate foster placements among Native kids

Artwork by Taylor Daniels

Artwork by Taylor Daniels

Minnesota has put more Native American children in foster care than any other state in the nation. Despite being one of the least-represented minorities in Minnesota, nearly one in every 10 Native children is in the foster system, compared to only one in every 100 white children.

One of key individuals who has spearheaded research into this issue is Professor Priscilla Day, director of the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Day has focused on social work and American Indian families for a great deal of her career, and aside from her role at the University, she also writes and trains for the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).

“It’s complicated,” said Day, who had just returned from a national meeting on American Indian child welfare practices. “Part of the issue is ineffective training and bias of workers, but it’s also how the system is set up to get the results it does.

Day is currently leading the Native American Equity Pilot Project at the U of M-Duluth, as part of a partnership with the DHS, to look into these concerns. The three-year project, which began in January, has accrued $400,000 of pledged funding by the state and will primarily focus on analyzing Native social work and foster care in St. Louis County, which encompasses large parts of the Bois Forte and Fond du Lac Indian reservations. Together, Day and the DHS hope to create a model that will help better manage the Native foster cases.

“I think a very intentional review of what is happening will help us develop effective solutions to American Indian child welfare issues,” she said, “We’ll have to really engage the tribes in a meaningful way. It may even mean making large changes to some policies and practices.”

Issues with foster care are not new to the Native American community. Many modern problems with the foster system’s treatment of Natives have their roots in Indian boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which sought to remove Native children from their family and alienate them from their culture. This influenced the mentality of social work for decades afterwards.

In 1978, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act demanded placement of Native children with relatives or other families within their tribe, creating more opportunities for tribes to be involved in these placements.

“The ICWA sought to provide ‘active efforts’ to prevent the unnecessary removal of children,” Day explained. “These efforts go a step beyond ‘reasonable efforts’ and really work to stop removal and to reunite children with their families.”

Jim Koppel, head of Children and Family Services for the DHS, spoke a bit more about what these reasonable efforts are historically and in the present.

“In 2002, Minnesota had very high numbers of African American children in foster care,” Koppel said. “One of the things we implemented was the family assessment model that looked at the needs of the family and how those could be addressed by other services.”

As reported in an August 2016 report from the National Council for Juvenile and Family Courts, this approach managed to cut African American foster cases in half and was drastically different from the present system that would demand changes in a home and threaten families with the removal of their children if those changes were not met. Unfortunately, the former process still plagues many Native American foster cases.

“We want to ensure each tribe can prioritize their own population and culture when making decisions of child placement,” Koppel said, who hopes the research will be able to propose equally effective practices for social work training and placement policy. “When you place a child, it is not always to their benefit—removing a child from their home is almost always traumatic to the child.”

Although the research is incredibly new, both Koppel and Day expressed their belief that a transition of Native foster cases from county courts to tribal court systems is one of the first steps to reducing high numbers of out-of-home placements.

“Our child welfare system is really strained—counties don’t have the resources and tribes have even less,” said Day. But tribal human service and court systems have a greater knowledge of the kinds of resources available to their people so working hand in hand is important to achieve better outcomes.”

Day’s department has already begun to implement research and analysis into the curriculum of students planning to enter careers in Native American child welfare. It has provided scholarships in exchange for tribal work commitments after graduation.

“There are a lot of good folks trying to help better understand what is happening,” she said, “and this research will help us find some answers.”