Native Americans are up to four times more likely to have their
children taken and placed into foster care than their non-Native
counterparts. Oklahoma Department of Human Services reported in
2020 that Native children represented more than 35 percent of those
in foster care, yet Native Americans make up only around 9 percent
of Oklahomas population.
That is the definition of racial disproportionality,
said Citizen Potawatomi Nation FireLodge Children & Family Services
Foster Care/Adoption Manager Kendra Lowden.
While the Indian Child Welfare Act has existed since 1978 and provides
added protections, numerous factors continue to impact the unequal
rate of Native American representation within the foster care system.
Need for ICWA
Before 1978, approximately 80 percent of Native American families
living on reservations lost at least one child to the foster care
system, according to data compiled by National Indian Child Welfare
Association. Additionally, more than 25 percent of all Native children
were removed from their families, with 85 percent receiving placements
outside of their tribes or relatives.
And that was even if there was no abuse there were
no issues occurring, Lowden said. Even if there were
willing and fit family members available, these children were still
adopted out to white families.
These policies continue to negatively impact individuals, families
and tribes. Non-tribal placement and adoption has created identity
issues and disconnected feelings along with negative mental health
They may be living in a community where theyre the
only Indian person, and when people feel stress, anxiety, depression,
a lot of times they cope in unhealthy ways, and that is in order
to mask their trauma, she said.
Past federal efforts including forced removal, boarding schools
and more contribute to inherited trauma, which can have destructive
effects on Native American family units and their dynamics.
is passed down emotionally, psychologically,
internally and also externally, Lowden said.
ICWA attempts to decrease the number of Native American children
that are removed from their communities and culture, helping ensure
the future is brighter and healthier. It sets requirements for states
to work directly with Native Nations and establishes specific standards
before removals occur. However, the law is not always followed or
Placing children and facilitating adoptions with Native families,
especially those from the same tribe, mitigates some of the long-term
outcomes that resulted from policies prior to ICWA; however, many
states remain non-compliant.
Part of that reason is there are no legal repercussions,
Lowden said. So if a state does not follow the law or have
their workers work with families in the way that the law outlines,
they are not going to get their funding pulled.
not a huge incentive for states to follow it, especially if they
dont have strong partnerships with tribes.
According to an OKDHS report released in September of 2020, 7,774
children were in Oklahoma foster
care, and 322 were in tribal custody. Yet, of the 7,452 in state
custody, 2,567 were Native American.
Despite the extraordinary number of American Indian children
in custody in Oklahoma, foster/adoptive parents do not currently
receive substantial training about the Indian Child Welfare Act
or how to care for the unique, individual needs of American Indian
children, Lowden said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs released Guidelines for Implementing
the Indian Child Welfare Act in 2016 to provide resources, references
and more to assist with implementing and upholding ICWA.
There is positive progress that is being made, she
said. But there are other issues that impact ICWA, including
media misrepresentation, so people have the wrong idea about the
law and how it helps families.
In response to the need for knowledgeable and improved reporting,
the Native American Journalists Association developed Recommendations
for Reporting on the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Some ICWA cases may be newsworthy, however, the way journalists
report ICWA stories can encourage anti-Indian sentiments and influence
negative behavior toward tribes and tribal citizens, the guide
Key NAJA recommendations include never referring to blood quantum,
protecting child privacy, reaching out to tribal experts, and understanding
the law is not based on race.
This perpetuates the false idea of the law being unfair compared
to other races and ethnicities. Indian status is not racial
but rather political as a matter of law, Lowden
OKDHS data indicates more than 80 percent of Oklahomas foster
and adoptive homes are not Native American, but the likelihood of
having a Native child placement is high. While the state requires
training to become a foster or adoptive parent, Lowden believes
ICWA-specific instruction and tribal consultation can assist foster
and adoptive homes to better meet the needs of Native American children
in their care.
Since the current OKDHS foster/adoptive parent training pre-service
curriculum lacks substantial ICWA training, it is very likely families
will feel lost or unsure of how to connect children to their heritage,
Preventing children from entering the system may be as simple as
being a good neighbor, friend or relative.
You should always report child abuse and neglect whenever
you suspect it, but theres a lot of things that community
members can do to assist families and prevent bad things from happening,
This could include helping get children to school or providing
contact information to potential resource providers.
Offering support to people and not judging them is key,
Lowden stressed. It cant hurt to offer, and that may
be the one thing that family is needing to hold them together is
just somebody to support them. And, it can really change the dynamic
FireLodge Children & Family Services has numerous programs
to help prevent family separation as well as ones to get guardians
back on the right path.
There are many times that when a parent becomes involved
with child welfare, thats the first time they have ever been
offered help. Its the first time that theyve been able
to realize that some behaviors are problematic or are not helpful,
so they get engaged in therapy and parenting classes and learn the
skills they were not able to due to their raising or the environment
that theyve been in, she said.
When CPN becomes involved in child welfare cases, FireLodge Children
& Family Services number one goal is reunification.
As long as its safe and appropriate, being with their
family is really how a childs identity develops, Lowden
said. If we can keep a child with their family, we dont
disrupt their identity or what theyre learning about themselves.
FireLodge assigns a skilled and qualified staff member to each
case. These individuals work one-on-one with families and build
relationships that are critical to long-term success. Lowden also
sees the departments work as a way to uphold CPNs sovereignty.
The reason that we do become involved in every case is we
care about the families. We dont want any Potawatomi children
lost from the Tribe, she said.
Were trying to undo what was done to us, and theres
still a long way to go when we still have a very disproportionate
amount of American Indian children in foster care compared to other
races. But, we are seeing good things happen.
Learn more about FireLodge Children & Family Services by calling
405-878-4831, or check them out on Facebook @CPNFireLodge.