Out of Relationship: First Nations and the Child Protection System



Out of Relationship: First Nations and the Child Protection System

Heather Haberman, Program Associate, NCCD

Many of us think of colonization as political policy that exists within US and world history, but in fact the effects of colonization are alive today in the institutional practices of many social service systems. These practices result in inequitable outcomes for people involved with systems and institutions including child welfare, health care, mental health, education, and juvenile justice, producing multi-systemic disparities for ethnic and cultural groups that have been historically colonized.

For First Nations people in the US and Canada, history includes the boarding/residential school period, which began in the late 1800s. The boarding-school era resulted in generations of First Nations children being forcibly taken from their parents to be raised in residential schools. These schools were designed to assimilate First Nations children to adopt a White, European lifestyle. In the US, this was the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man.” First Nations children were forced to wear European clothing and hair styles, commanded to practice Christianity, and were punished for speaking in their native language. Additionally, physical and sexual abuse in boarding schools was an epidemic. The boarding/residential school era did not end until the 1970s in the US, and was followed by the Arena Project, which removed First Nations children and placed them in White homes. These placements were meant to “rescue” First Nations children from their communities.

A similar situation occurred in Australia, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were systematically removed from their families and communities under official governmental policy from 1909–1969. The policy was designed to “assimilate” or “breed out” Indigenous people. These children became known as the “Stolen Generations.”

To fully understand the influence of colonization, it is helpful to investigate the evolution of social work perspectives. Four main perspectives, in progression, have guided child welfare practice over the past decades: social advantage, cultural continuity, family preservation, and expedient permanency. The social advantage model was concerned with preventing delinquency through the promotion of self-sufficiency. This model often resulted in children being removed from (so-called) impoverished environments and placing them in institutions, as seen in the boarding-school area.

The second model, cultural continuity, received federal backing in the United States after the US Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA). While ICWA was meant to protect First Nations children, it failed to define an “Indian child,” it failed to solicit feedback from tribes, and it did not provide funding for tribes to manage the CPS needs of all First Nations children.

The family preservation model mandated practices keeping children in their family homes through prevention and education. Similar to the issues found with the Indian Child Welfare Act, these types of mandates―without proper funding and collaboration with First Nations populations―are ultimately empty.

Recent legislation has favored the expedient permanency perspective, focusing on a stable attachment and limited multiple placements for children, but there are too few First Nations alternate care providers. The US Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) sought to decrease the adoption wait for children of color, and MEPA requires states to recruit parents of color as adoption families. However, the law provides no funding for recruitment, perpetuating the continuation of placing First Nations children with White families.

In 2012, the national Defending Childhood Task Force, which is staffed by NCCD and charged with exploring ways to reduce children’s exposure to violence, heard testimony in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about many of these issues. Gil Vigil, board member of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and administrator of the Santa Fe Indian School, discussed the effects of the boarding-school era and other instances of multi-generational trauma affecting First Nations communities. In their written testimony, Mr. Vigil and NICWA recommended many ways to improve the CPS system and the services it provides for First Nations children and their families.

Albuquerque witnesses also discussed their efforts to center healing and growth around cultural and spiritual values. Coloradas Mangas, a 17-year-old member of the Apache tribe in Ruidoso, NM, began a suicide prevention coalition with peers after he was personally affected by a cluster of suicides in his community. Mr. Mangas’s group emphasizes helping elders to pass down the Apache language and traditions to young people in the tribe as a way to help youth feel supported by the community.

With unfunded, ill-defined legislation around issues of child welfare and First Nations children, we must do more than acknowledge history and revise practices in order to stop systemic colonization. For effective change to take place, it is critical that we convene working groups with First Nations stakeholders when creating any policy that affects them, and that the policies adopted ultimately reflect the needs of the First Nations communities as those needs are defined by First Nations people.

Social justice, integrity, and collaboration are some of NCCD’s core values. With these values central in our approach to development of Structured Decision Making® (SDM) systems, NCCD’s Children’s Research Center staff are mindful of working closely with our agency partners to include First Nations, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander communities as part of the development process whenever possible to ensure that the work reflects cultural humility and promotes equity in the assessment process. There is still much we hope to learn through ongoing evaluation and continued dialogue to fully understand how assessments can be strengthened and improved to better support child welfare’s capacity to serve families impacted by past governmental policies.  


Anyon, Y. (2010). Reducing racial disparities and disproportionalities in the child welfare system: Policy perspectives about how to serve the best interests of African American youth. Children and Youth Services Review, (33), p. 242-253.

Cross, T. (2006). Indian Family Exception Doctrine: Still Losing Children Despite the Indian Child Welfare Act. Child Welfare, LXXSV(4), p. 671-690.

Cross, T. (2008). Disproportionality in Child Welfare. Child Welfare, 87(2), p. 11-20.

McRoy, R. G. (2008). Acknowledging Disproportionate Outcomes and Changing Service Delivery. Child Welfare, 87(2), p. 205-210.

Miller, O. A., Ward, K. J. (2008). Emerging Strategies for Reducing Racial Disproportionality and Disparate Outcomes in Child Welfare: The Results of a National Breakthrough Series Collaborative. Child Welfare, 87(2), p. 211-240.

Heather Haberman is a Program Associate at NCCD.

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