Less than 2% of Minnesota’s population is Native American, according to Census data. But the most recent federal child welfare data shows more than one-third of children in the state’s foster care system were identified as being at least part American Indian in 2019. The state dwarfs all others in terms of disproportionality when it comes to involving Native families in child welfare cases.
Despite this, the child welfare workforce in Minnesota has received little in the way of training on federal and state laws that were passed to make systems go above and beyond to keep Indian children with their families. Until now.
The University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies has announced a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to train workers on culturally responsible services to Native American families. The training will focus in part on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law passed in 1978, and the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act passed seven years later.
The Imprint spoke with Priscilla Day, former director of the center, Bree Bussey, the current director, and Jeri Jasken, the director of the new training program, to learn more about the plan.
How did your personal path lead you to spearheading this training program?
Priscilla Day: I’ve been a professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth since 1993, and over the years we’ve been involved in looking at training for county workers around family preservation. I want to say in about 2007, I worked with a group of tribal child welfare leaders in Minnesota and some tribal attorneys and tribal judges, we put together a training for DHS called “Bridging Our Understanding: American Indian Family Preservation.”
That was the first training DHS ever had that was offered in a tribal location. We provided funding for the tribe to do that and usually had either elders from their community or some of their workers come in and talk about child welfare practices and family preservation from their perspective of whatever tribe we were at.
And then a few years ago, we were asked to look at their ICWA training, and that came about because tribal child welfare directors and tribal leaders in Minnesota were very upset at the continuing increase in noncompliance with ICWA. Minnesota leads the nation in having the highest disproportionality of Indian kids in the child welfare system of any state, and we have for some time, and it’s pretty much back up to pre-ICWA levels. So, we were asked to put together a day-long ICWA training. Now, we have the Tribal Training Certification and Partnership that Jeri is the director of, and our first task was to start doing foundation training for all the new workers.
Bree Bussey: We also know and understand that the foundation training that DHS offers doesn’t really apply to folks who are working for tribal child welfare programs. So, another large part of the work that we will do is tribal child welfare workforce training, which has a different lens and a different perspective.
We have been doing some of that work for quite some time. The child welfare workforce in Minnesota is about 4,500 folks, and so there’s an awful lot of interaction and training that we need to do for folks who’ve already been through foundation training. So we’re looking at how we do that and making sure that we’re reaching supervisors, for example, and things like that. We’re just wanting to engage with the whole child welfare workforce, both public and tribal.
ICWA was passed in the 1970s at a time when Native American kids were routinely pulled off reservations and put in boarding schools or with white families. Would you say we have moved past that dark era? And if so, what do you see as the modern day need and importance of ICWA?
Jeri Jasken: Well, I think the only thing that’s changed is kids aren’t going to boarding schools anymore. Honestly, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond anything. ICWA is  years old, and not much has changed – so we have to begin to question why that is. We have to begin to question why people haven’t taken responsibility for that and an active approach to changing it. Tribes certainly have been vocal about continuing in this pattern of having Native children being 18.2 times more likely to enter into foster care [in Minnesota]. So no, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond much.
Bussey: ICWA was passed after a lot of advocacy and activism done by American Indian families. The act is intended to be a remedy to the destructive child welfare policies and social policies that affected American Indian families. So, I think that that’s a really important thing for the workforce to understand and know is that it was passed to remedy and acknowledge the things that took place in the past. It acknowledged that the future of American Indian tribes is dependent on their children a long time ago. I heard one of my elders say, the strength of a forest is in its seedlings, and that’s really related to ICWA.
Native American children remain disproportionately represented in the foster care system, with Minnesota showing the worst disproportionalities in the country. Why do you think this is the case?
Day: When ICWA was passed, about one out of every four American Indian children was ending up in out-of-home care and not so much boarding schools. There was actually an adoption project, which was to adopt out Indian kids to give them a better life.
A lot of that was related to poverty, and I think still is. And then a lot of it was related to the belief that an Indian child would be better off in a white home than in an Indian home. Today, it’s one out of every five kids in Minnesota [ending up in out-of-home care]. It’s not that high in some other places. So, it’s not about drug use. It’s not about historic trauma. Those are some of the reasons people give that it’s so high, but all those things exist in other places in the country.
So, what’s happening in Minnesota that this still continues to happen at almost the same rate as it did 40 some years ago? And why is disproportionality dropping for other populations like African Americans? Why is it still high?
Training is part of it, institutional bias in our systems and in funding sources and even the lack of funding for the training that we’re doing given the need. There is bias and racism in the systems and Indian families are being held to a standard that is not culturally appropriate. So, the system gets the results it was designed to get, and it’s a system of removal.
Can you tell me about this new program and what the training will cover?
Jasken: A big part of foundation training is to ensure that new social workers or case managers coming out – investigators, assessment workers, intake workers – that they’re all familiar with ICWA and [the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act] and how to really implement [them] to reduce out-of-home placements and really focus on how to apply active efforts in situations to try to preserve families and keep them together.
Being able to get that training out there to the workers to increase their competencies in all of these areas is a major endeavor. The other secondary component is to look at Indigenous practice for tribes and really look at being able to develop training models for tribes that work in tribal communities. Tribes are under a lot of pressure in Minnesota with some expectations to follow state statute or follow the way the state does business, and we know that doesn’t work. Each tribe has their own individual child welfare histories, traditions and ways in which families approach wellness and so looking at those individual aspects has to be a part of that practice model.
Why is it critical to have a culturally responsive approach to training child welfare workers working with American Indian families.
Day: I think this comes from lots of years of experience that culture is just really critical. Making sure that workers understand the importance of culture can be very hard for people, in particular white social workers who don’t have much of an affinity with their own culture, which is what America was all about, right, “the great melting pot.”
But the result then is it’s hard for people who aren’t really attached to their own culture to understand that culture really is important, in particular to Indigenous people and people of color. Culture is what helps people to survive. It provides a lot of identity.
One example is the concept of extended family. Lots of us grew up in extended families. I had both my parents, but for a long period of time, my parents lived with my grandparents. My grandma was like my second mother. Lots of times kids go between extended family so they might be with grandma and grandpa. They might go to an auntie or uncle’s house for a while. That’s the norm. That is not child abandonment. So needing to understand a culture that is different from your own, and understand that those are normative behaviors within that culture is really important. If you don’t, that can really lead to misunderstanding and high disproportionality.