Donna Ennis

Dr. Phil and the Real Purpose of the Indian Child Welfare Act

I recently became aware of a group that is called Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children and Families. On the surface that sounds legitimate but upon further investigation it turns out to be another group attempting to diminish the sovereignty of our tribes and undermine the structure of the Native family. There have been over 200 years of federal policy aimed at the extermination of Native American people. Some of these attempts have been subtle and others more blatant.

The federal government began sending Native children to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870’s, when the United States was still at war with Indians. An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools. Pratt believed that the Indian Wars weren’t extinguishing the culture fast enough and so he came upon the idea to separate the children from their parents. Children as young as 4 or 5 were forcibly taken from their homes and brought to the boarding school where they were stripped of their language, culture and family ties. It was many years before the era of the boarding schools was over and by then irreparable damage was done to Native people and the ripple effects are still felt today as evidenced by the historical, intergenerational and cultural trauma that we see in our people.

In 1978, the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to remedy the disproportionate number and widespread removal of children that were being taken from their homes. After the Boarding Schools were over, but before the passage of the federal law protecting Native children, they were again being forcibly removed from their families and placed cross-culturally; away from their language, culture and family ties. Sound familiar?

According to the Minnesota Child Welfare Disparities Report from February 2010 there is continuing concern for disproportional representation of children by race and ethnicity in the public child welfare system. American Indian children are over-represented in rate of:

• Contact with the child protection system — Native children were six times more likely to be subjects of child protection investigations

• Experiencing neglect – Native children were 8 times more likely to be the subject of a neglect report

• Recurrence of child maltreatment – Native children were placed in out of home care more days at a rate twice that of any other group and were 12 times more likely than a White child to spend time in placement

The entire report can be viewed here.

As these alarming statistics show there is a great deal of work that needs to be done. While many of us are in the trenches doing the work to support our Native families and decrease these disparities there are efforts underway to amend the Indian Child Welfare Act making it possible for families to adopt and foster our children whether the family is Native American or not. The recent Dr Phil show is just one of the ways the media attempts to portray Native people in a negative light by spreading information that they know to be untruthful about Native people. The Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children and Families is another group that is attempting to destroy the Native American family way of life and to threaten Tribal Sovereignty by proposing amendments to the ICWA that will deny Native children the protection to be raised in the safety, protection and comfort of their Tribal families.

Donna Ennis is currently the chair of the Minnesota Indian Child Welfare Advisory Council, as well as the eastern regional director and cultural director for North Homes Children and Family Services, a professional foster care agency.


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Dr. Phil and the Real Purpose of the Indian Child Welfare Act