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  • Family disintegration is a major challenge facing Native Americans. Tweet This
  • The rate of child abuse among Native Americans is twice as high as the national average. Tweet This

American Indians are the most impoverished racial group in the country. Not surprisingly, if you compare Indian communities to other impoverished areas in the United States, you’ll see similarities in terms of single motherhood, teen pregnancy, drug use, and violence.

Elizabeth Morris, who leads the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, told me that she believes the core of the problem is “family disintegration,” caused largely, she says, by government subsidies. I interviewed Morris as part of the research for my new book, The New Trail of Tears.

She described how she became involved in the lives of Indian children because her late husband Roland was a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Nation. In her time living near that reservation, she has attended the funeral of a 2-year-old beaten to death. She has fought off a drunken man trying to sexually assault a 10-year-old. She has raised four Indian foster children with fetal alcohol syndrome and two more born with crack in their bloodstream.

Her husband was married once before, and he acknowledged that he wasn’t always there for his former wife and their children. But Morris says:

It didn’t matter if he took off for three months on a binge. They had HUD housing, and they had food stamps, fuel assistance, and tribal health care. He wasn’t needed. If he thought his family wouldn’t have had food, he would have behaved differently. A man does need to feel needed. But the government took care of all that.

The government’s role in shifting responsibility away from fathers has devastated communities across the country, and not just Native American ones. Still, fatherlessness or unemployment alone can’t explain the high levels of child abuse and sexual abuse in Indian communities. The rate of child abuse among Native Americans is twice as high as the national average.

Most tribal leaders, health professionals, and observers of Indian communities blame boarding schools for the high rates of physical and sexual abuse on reservations. It’s hard to determine exactly how many children went to boarding school willingly—many families thought it was the best way to get an education —and how many were forcibly removed from their homes, but there’s no doubt that there was widespread physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at these institutions. Indian children were ripped from their families and communities, they were forbidden from speaking their native language, and many were preyed upon by teachers and administrators. When they returned to their families, they often had difficulty functioning. Many adults still can’t talk about their experiences. And it has significantly affected their ability to raise their own families.

All of which has created a severe shortage of stable Indian families. The Indian Child Welfare Act, which was originally intended to keep social workers from removing Indian kids from their families simply because of poverty, has now given tribes a say in foster care, adoption cases, and even divorce custody proceedings. But ICWA raises all sorts of constitutional issues.

And it has also created some impossible situations for those who are trying to find stable homes for Indian children. When Mark Fiddler, a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1988 and went to work as a public defender, the motivation behind ICWA really appealed to him. “I supported the idea of trying to keep Indian kids in Indian homes whenever possible,” he says.

But today, he realizes that there is a real shortage of Indian homes into which it would be reasonable to place these children. If you talk to residents of reservations, says Fiddler, “you realize this has been going on for generations.” On the “macro-level,” he notes, “you have this narrative about disproportionate placement rates”—that is, the idea that Indian children are being removed from their homes at a higher rate than children of other races. But then, explains Fiddler, “there is the micro-level of reality with parents.” And that reality, he says, is a “cycle of dysfunctional parenting that is passed from generation to generation.”