A Dark Piece in America’s Subconscious: Native Children in the Child Welfare System

Native Students

Published November 29, 2015

In 1879 an army officer named Richard H Pratt opened a boarding school for Indian youth in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  This was the first of many schools which ran with the full support of the federal government, and with the expressed goal of Americanizing Native Americans, or in other words, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” When dealing with the issue of child welfare, the research and literature suggest this is an issue inseparable from racial disparity.  When we consider the experience of Native American children in the welfare system we see an additional component, not only the often competing interests of keeping a family together, and keeping a child safe but also that of preserving cultural integrity.

There is a tendency for federal government to resort to default behavior when dealing with Native Americans.  Behavior that is rooted in attempted cultural genocide through forced assimilation.

When we talk about disparity, we mean the unequal treatment of a racial or ethnic minority in comparison to a non-minority by child welfare workers and by the child welfare system as a whole. This can be observed in many forms during the process of interaction, and includes key decision points (e.g., reporting, investigation, foster care placement, and exit), which are required for treatment, services, or resources. Research shows children of color in foster care and their families are treated differently from white children and their families in the system. Approximately 60 percent of children living in foster care are children of color.  Within this group, American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) children are grossly overrepresented.  Despite the fact that American Indian children represent only one percent of the child population they make-up two percent in foster care (Jones, 2015).  Roberts (2002), states that if one holds no prior preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, one would definitely conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

Photo by Noel Altaha

Photo by Noel Altaha

The treatment of Native Americans is particularly striking because in their case institutional efforts seem to be extended beyond simply disrupting the family to engaging in an  assault on their culture.  The statistics on the experience of Native American children in the welfare system versus that of all others stands in stark contrast.  According to Jones (2015), in 2010, AI/AN children were six times as likely to be subject of reports, African American children were four times as likely, and multiracial children were twice as likely compared to white children.  Native American children not only enter the system at a younger age but have a tendency to stay there longer and in worse conditions (Carter, 2009; Quash-Mah, Stockard, Johnson-Shelton, & Crowley, 2010). While the total number of Indian children entering out-of-home care fell (213 in 2012 versus 283 in 2011), the percentage of Indian children entering out-of-home care actually increased (8.22% in 2012 versus 4.8% in 2011) (Quash-Mah, Stockard, Johnson-Shelton, & Crowley, 2010).  Additionally, the efforts of child protective services too often take children out of their community to be educated elsewhere; despite the fact, as we will see later, that legislation exists to curtail this decisively harmful practice. The alarming numbers are ignored and accepted as routine.

Photo by Noel Altaha

Photo by Noel Altaha

The traditional argument regarding the reasons as to why this occurs and is easily accepted fall in line with standard perceptions of Native American culture (Crofoot & Harris, 2012).  Namely, that social ills are disproportionately rampant throughout Indian country. The assumption that this myth is true makes it easier to justify the removal of Indian children at an epidemic rate. Terry Cross, the former director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) defined the child welfare perspective when he described as a myth the school of thought that poverty, substance abuse, and welfare system create a greater need and bring a great number of children of color into the child welfare system. (Crofoot & Harris, 2012).  However, the fact is that the “myth” does not withstand close examination.

Lakota People's Project

Even if we were to concede that for some reason American Indian/Alaskan Native communities were in fact more vulnerable to the conditions attributed to it, the fact remains, that in 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed, specifically, to prevent the cultural harm that took place by removing Indian children from their community. In other words, if an Indian child is in need of protection, the specific guidelines to accomplish this without forcing cultural assimilation are in place (Herzberg, 2013).  These guidelines call for placement of abused children with extended family or other tribal members. However, agencies continue to disregard the requirements as put forth by ICWA, thus undermining tribal sovereignty and the cultural identity of the children they claim to protect. Nearly four decades since Congress passed ICWA, the disproportionate numbers remain exceedingly high for AI/AN children in the child welfare system in comparison to other children. This is part of a broader trend, as Roberts (2002), states there has been an increasingly severe shift in child welfare philosophy away from preserving families, and instead engaging in “excessive” removal of children.

The current state of child welfare and people of color’s role in it leaves a great deal to be desired.  Children of color are more likely to be removed from their families, receive fewer vital services and lower financial support, remain in care for longer periods of time, and are less likely to be reunified with parents. Most studies pinpointed race as one of the main determinants influencing child protective services at the stages of reporting, investigation, substantiation, placement, and exit from care. The only stage where no racial differences were identified was the stage of reentry into the child welfare system (Hill, 2006).  This is emblematic of not only the fact that children of color are at a greater risk of entering the child welfare system but that they are likely to experience inequity throughout their involvement in it.

Making recommendations on how to reform this broken system is a tricky task. However, whatever policy reform is enacted in the child welfare system must begin by promoting tribal sovereignty.  Many of the issues arise from the belief that child welfare services run counter to Native American traditions; therefore, promoting tribal sovereignty is a step towards curtailing the coercive aspects of these services. Enforcement of the guidelines set forth by ICWA is another logical step; in other words, requiring the federal government to step in and oversee compliance of child welfare agencies to the guidelines of ICWA. According to Crofoot & Harris (2012), successful Indian programs provide a model for culturally appropriate delivery.  In addition, Harris & Hackeet (2008) recommends that welfare workers be examined at key decision points, for example 1) reporting for abuse and neglect; 2) referral of the report for investigation; 3) reunification services; 4) out-of-home placement; and 5) termination of parental rights. Lastly, Jones (2015) recommends the application of a racial equity lens in order to be more effective in addressing institutional or structural racism.  She argues we need to look at the risk factors that accompany racial disparities such as poverty, and family structure that put minority children at greater risk.  There is a continued need for social workers and child welfare workers to advocate for an adequate social and economic safety net for all families.  Lastly, research suggests the strengthening of protective factors within the culture of American Indian/Alaskan Native families (Jones, 2015).  This suggests a need for the implementation of  policies that uplift cultural protective factors.


Presently, in the news, the Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit suing South Dakota’s Department of Social Services over allegations of racial discrimination against Native American job applicants (Department of Justice, 2015).  The allegations are that the Department of Social Services intentionally skipped over well-qualified Native American job applicants in favor of less-qualified whites.  The  complaint alleges that  the Department of Social Services posted eighteen job listings. After Interviews were conducted eleven white and one Native American applicant were hired, this despite the fact that 40 percent of the applicants were Native American.  In addition, the agency is accused of tampering with the  job posting process  and of using subjective, arbitrary hiring practices to discriminate against Native Americans applying for Specialist positions.  Over a two year period beginning in 2010, DSS posted 18 Specialist vacancies for its Pine Ridge Reservation Office.  Even though the agency received nearly 40 percent of its applications from Native Americans, DSS hired 11 Whites and only one Native American, while removing six other openings entirely. It is particularly notable that these positions were for staff servicing the Native American community. This makes it obvious that reform in child welfare agencies hiring practices are needed in order to safeguard against discriminatory hiring protocols.


The history of forced assimilation of the American Indian, is long, ingrained, and by this point a dark piece of the American subconscious. There is a preponderance of evidence that race is directly linked to child protection services.  The relationship of the Native American to the child welfare system goes beyond even that relationship. There is an attempt to de-culturize that simply does not manifest with other ethnicities. Despite even legislative efforts the boarding-school desire to remove and re-educate persists. There is something to confront that is too big to bury and thus keeps re-emerging.  Yes, the myths and yes, the stereotypes, but it’s the relationship between the colonized and the colonizers which has yet to be fully exposed.  For this reason, even good intentions somehow find their way back to old patterns, and until the motivation to unearth, examine and address the past is found, the cycle of dysfunction continues to repeat itself.


Akhtar, Z. (2013). Native family law, Indian child welfare act and tribal sovereignty.First Peoples Child & Family Review7(2), 130-147.

Crofoot, T. L. & Harris, M. S. (2012).  An Indian child welfare perspective on disproportionality in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 34 (9), 1667-1674.

Harris, M.S. & Hackett, W. (2008). Decision points in child welfare: An action research model to address disproportionality. Children and Youth Services Review, 30, (2), 199-215.

Herbzberg, L. (2013). Shared decision-making: a voice for the Lakota People. Child and Family Social Work. 18, 477-486.

Hill, R.B. (2006). Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality in Child Welfare: An Update. Paper prepared for Casey- CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity, Washington, D.C.

Quash-Mah, S., Stockard, J., Johnson-Shelton, D., & Crowley, R. (2010). Fulfilling the hope of ICWA: The role of community context. Children and Youth Services Review.32, 896-901.

Roberts, D. (2002). Racial harm: Dorothy Roberts explains how racism works in thechild welfare system. Colorlines, 5(19), 1-52 .

Waldfogel, J. (2009). Prevention and the Child Protection System. Future Of Children,19(2), 195-210.

Noel Altaha is an activist and a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, on the Fort Apache Indian reservation in present day eastern Arizona. Her tribal clan is Eagle, sub clan is Tugaiin, White Water People. She is currently pursuing her Master’s of Science in Social Work at Columbia University in New York City.

Editor’s Note: This essay was first published in Native Max magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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