New state law could help Native American families stay together

May 11, 2011

Decades after the federal government stopped taking Native American children from their homes and putting them in boarding schools, Native families still face challenges staying together.

In Washington State, Native children are more likely to be removed from their homes in child welfare cases than kids of any other race. A new state law aims to strengthen parents' and guardians' rights to keep their kids. 

Effect On Tribes

Native Americans say government policies and societal biases have led to an erosion of their tribes. Liz Mueller, vice chair of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, says first it was boarding schools, now it’s child protective services. 

She says some caseworkers fail to follow federal laws, including confirming whether a kid, or his family, is Native American:

“One of our tribal members was asked are you Indian? He said yes, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. The caseworker said, I’ve never heard of that tribe and marked him non-Indian.”

That meant the child wasn’t eligible for protections under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

The law, passed in 1978, is designed to keep Native kids with their families, or at least with their tribes. It came as a response to the drastically disproportionate number of kids being taken from their homes and placed with non-Indian guardians. At the time, between a quarter and a third of Native children were being removed from their families.

Problem Still Exists

A few years ago, a state committee looked into the problem in Washington State. While researchers found no evidence of higher rates of abuse or neglect, the committee reported Native kids are still 60 percent more likely to be removed from their homes than White children. They're also:

  • Almost three times as likely to be referred to CPS.
  • Less likely to reunify with parents within two years.
  • Less likely to be adopted within two years.
  • More likely to have a high-risk tag at intake.

Mueller says disregard for the federal law and bias against Native Americans could explain why:

“Many of our families are still very poor, so their homes may not look like middle class homes. There may be several families living together. That could prejudice a caseworker." 

Washington's Own Indian Child Welfare Act

The new state law could address those issues when it goes into effect on July first. It clarifies some of the requirements under the federal law. It also encourages courts to put more effort into identifying Native kids. The state law doesn’t increase training or enforcement.

Still, Mueller says it could go a long way to keeping tribal nations like hers from eroding further:

“They are citizens of this tribe.  It’s just like you if you’re a citizen of the United States.  If you went to a different country and kids were taken and placed someplace.  You’d want those children to know they’re citizens of the United States and that they have rights."