The plight of Indigenous children recently made headlines, as Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a damning report calling the country's long-held policy of removing Native children from their families by force and placing them in state-funded residential schools "cultural genocide." According to the report, even before Canada was founded in 1867, churches were operating boarding schools for Indigenous children, and the last federally supported residential school didn't close until the late 1990s.
In the US, Native children were subjected to similar policies for more than a century. Article VII of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868
stated, "In order to insure the civilization of the Indians entering
into this treaty … they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their
children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to
In response to the history of removing Native children from their
families and cultures and forcing them into (often abusive) boarding
schools, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978. The law established requirements
for public and private child welfare agencies and state courts to
adhere to when working with tribal children and families. However, the
current manifestation of Native child removal is the child welfare
system, and the ICWA is theoretically supposed to prevent that system
from becoming a vehicle of systematic removal of children.
According to Assistant Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation
Chrissi Nimmo, at its most basic level, "ICWA requires state courts and
private agencies to always seek family reunification or family
placement, involve tribes in decision-making of their children and
protect parental rights - one of the most basic and fundamental rights
in this country."
However, due to continued violations and noncompliance with the ICWA, in February of 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) published new guidelines to strengthen the law, which will be codified at the end of the year.
Daniel Sheehan, chief counsel of the Lakota People's Law Office in
Rapid City, South Dakota, believes there is currently no enforcement
mechanism inherent in the ICWA, which makes it easier to violate. "No
federal agency feels its place is to enforce the Indian Child Welfare
Act, and the issue is under the radar because [the group it represents]
is not a politically powerful constituency."
Nimmo said that the proposed changes are to federal regulations that
interpret ICWA, not changes to ICWA itself. "As the mother of Indian
children and a tribal attorney, I personally and professionally fully
support the proposed changes," she said. The most important aspects of
the new regulations, according to Nimmo, are clarifications on notifying
tribes of potential ICWA cases, a definition of "active efforts" to
prevent the breakup of families and a definition of "good cause," which
is a critical term in the ICWA.
In spite of efforts to prevent it, the current generation of
Indigenous children in the US is facing a double threat: being removed
from their homes and tribes to be placed with (usually) white foster
families and being forced into privately and publicly funded programs
for "at-risk youth" - institutions that are often havens of neglect and
abuse, and sometimes even have political conflicts of interest.
These ongoing threats are the continuation of a long series of
broad-scale attempts at forced assimilation. Indigenous activist, writer
and prison abolitionist Kelly Hayes, who is also Truthout's Community
Engagement Fellow, speaks to this firsthand. "As the child of a
displaced Indigenous man [of the Menominee Nation], I see the removal of
our people … as part of the larger effort to diminish the number of
Native people in the United States," Hayes said. "While anti-Blackness,
as perpetrated by the American government, has often taken the form of
persecuting anyone with any known Black heritage, regardless of
appearance, anti-Native policies have involved a process of destruction
that has, in the last hundred years, included concerted efforts at
In South Dakota, Indigenous children make up 15 percent of the child
population, but comprise more than half the children in foster care.
Nearly 90 percent of the kids in family foster care are placed in non-Native homes or group care.
When Native parents are arrested and their children are taken away,
the parents have no means of contact with their children, and no
information is communicated to them, Sheehan said. This makes it harder
for families to reclaim their children, and easier for the state to
perpetuate the cycle of forced removal of Indigenous children.
Taking children away from their Native families is also profitable:
According to a February 2015 report from IBISWorld, adoption and child
welfare services in the United States rake in $14 billion a year. And there are other indications of moneyed influence in child removal.
With its high dependence on federal financial support, Sheehan said,
South Dakota receives $79,000 per Native child per year under the
adoption track of the state's foster care system.
There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the US, and suicide rates for Native youth are at least triple the national average.
There is undoubtedly lasting trauma to children who are permanently removed from their birth families, said Chrissi Nimmo.
"Each child literally holds the future of a tribe," she said. "If
children are removed, tribes are at risk of becoming extinct - both
because there literally may not be children to continue the tribe and
because the cultural identity of the tribe cannot be passed to the next
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