Teresa Nord regained custody of her eldest daughter several years ago, but the experience still haunts her.
“I live with this constant fear,” says Nord, 42, a Navajo and Hopi Indian descendant who lives in Glencoe, Minn. “I call it PTSD child protection, they’re just going to knock on my door one day.”
In 2015, Nord’s then 6-year-old daughter told him she had been abused by one of her mother’s close friends. Nord contacted a social worker for help – only to have her daughter immediately removed by child protective services.
Nord spent three years fighting to regain custody, but her daughter’s time in foster care left her with deep fears of abandonment and exacerbated other mental health issues. “The foster family told her: ‘Your mother is a bad mother, you will never see her again, [and] you might as well get used to it,” Nord says.
Recent discoveries of mass graves located at former Indigenous boarding school sites have led to international judgment on the atrocities committed by the US and Canadian governments in the name of assimilation. And political leaders like Minnesota Governor Tim Walz recognized the deep trauma that schools have inflicted on generations of Indigenous families.
However, Native parents and Native child welfare experts in Minnesota say that many of the underlying beliefs about Native families that fueled boarding school systems are perpetuated by the modern child welfare system. of the state, with devastating effects.
Many Indigenous mothers like Nord can’t help but worry about having their children snatched away or the ripple effects of generations of Indigenous moves.
“There is a very explicit connection in the minds of the Indigenous community between residential schools and the child welfare system,” says Nicole MartinRogers, a White Earth Ojibwe descendant and senior research director at Wilder Research, an organization researcher who works with non-profit organizations and governments. That’s because boarding schools are “how the system started taking children away from their families.”
The Legacy of Boarding Schools
In the 1800s, the federal government created compulsory boarding schools for Native American children, with the mission of assimilating Native children. Minnesota’s first boarding school opened in 1871. Children in these schools were often starved, beaten, and forced to sever their connection to their Native heritage and language.
Although these schools were mostly closed in the 1950s, Aboriginal children continued to be removed from their homes at a staggering rate through a different mechanism: adoption.
Native children were removed from their families in Minnesota and other states at such high rates that outrage in Native communities led to the creation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) .
ICWA requires child welfare agencies to pay special attention to cases involving enlistable tribal members in the form of consultations with tribes.
But for native women like Nord, who is a descendant of the tribe but not an enlistable member, those protections don’t apply.
Social workers and the courts often fail to give Indigenous parents adequate and culturally appropriate counseling on how to reunite with their children, a core principle of ICWA, says Sadie Hart, an ICWA compliance court monitor in Ramsey County. And they often force parents to meet impossibly strict deadlines to resolve poverty or substance abuse issues in order to regain custody, without providing adequate support to do so, she says.
Thinking back to the days of boarding schools and adoption, it’s easy to say they got it wrong, says Shannon Smith, executive director of the ICWA Law Center. But she says the underlying mentality persists, as does the impact, often due to factors like cultural ignorance or misguided beliefs about Indigenous parents.
“I think that often the removals [are] society … equating remoteness with security. And it is an equation that is simply automatic. And I think that’s fundamentally flawed,” Smith says.
Indeed, according to some experts, poverty can often look like neglect to social workers, especially in families of color. Even when poverty causes instability that puts children at risk, withdrawal may not be the best option and can exacerbate rather than solve underlying problems.
In Hennepin County, home of the ICWA Law Center, Native Americans make up about 26% of people living in poverty, though they make up just 1% of the population, according to the county’s 2018 report “Child Protective Services: Reform and Child Welfare.”
“There are so many Indigenous families living in poverty,” says MartinRogers. “It’s hard not to see this as neglect… if the social worker comes into the house and there’s no food in the fridge or the kids don’t have a bed to sleep in or a other things that can result from someone being just very poor.”
The impact of residential schools and generational trauma also cannot be separated from current child welfare issues in the state, says MartinRogers, whose grandfather is an Ojibwa residential school survivor.
It’s a “vicious cycle,” she says, as each generation loses that connection to their family and culture. “All of this generational trauma fuels the disproportionate number of Indigenous families involved in the child welfare system,” she says.
It doesn’t help, she says, that about 92% of social workers in the state are white, according to the 2020 Minnesota Social Worker Workforce Report; statistically zero percent identify as American Indian.
“If we all have middle-class white women deciding when someone is abusing or neglecting their child, that’s a problem,” says MartinRogers.
Said Senator Mary Kunesh, a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who represent parts of Ramsey, Hennepin and Anoka Counties, “They think the best thing is to take children away from their families, when in fact, the best thing we can do is remove the issues and barriers that are causing this family to struggle.”
Shana King of Maple Grove, who along with her children are all registered members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations, temporarily lost custody of her two youngest children in 2009 after an overdose in a public park.
King acknowledges needing help, but said the foster care system has denied her children, including a son with cerebral palsy, a loving environment.
“When he went into foster care, they gave him 33 different drugs,” King says. “It’s affecting his liver and kidneys.” Her son died in December at the age of 19.
“I never thought of addiction as a reason to take children away,” King says. “I really feel like we need to have…family treatment centers, where we can still have dinner together and get the support we need.”
Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner of children and family services for the Minnesota Department of Social Services, said reform efforts at the state and county levels include partnerships with Minnesota tribes and training. cultural sensitivity for staff. Although the data shows such reforms have barely moved the needle, Brown says a new state program shows promise: the Native American Family Early Intervention Grants, launched in 2020, which provide direct support. to aboriginal families through grants to tribal nations. The Minnesota DHS reports that of the 290 Indigenous families who participated in the program, all but eight avoided out-of-home placements.
But Teresa Nord remains skeptical that much can be done to fix the system that has turned her life upside down. After regaining custody of her oldest child, North joined the ICWA Law Center, an organization dedicated to helping Indigenous mothers and families reunite with their children in the foster care system, where she sees many of the same troubling patterns in her case.
“For the families we work with, it’s living in a constant state of fear,” says Nord. “Grandma was in the system and now mom is in the system and now the child is in the system… How can we expect our community members to even begin to heal?
This story was published in partnership between the Star Tribune and tthe fuller project, a non-profit newsroom that deals with issues that affect women. Support for this reporting was provided by the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism National Health Journalism Fellowship. This story is an excerpt from a long article published in Mother Jones.