Native Foster Care Placements up Sharply in North Dakota

A recent surge in foster care placements of Native American children in South Dakota may reflect the economic hard times--or evoke a bleak legacy of segregation.

By Michelle Chen Sep 01, 2010

A recent surge in foster care placements of Native American children in North Dakota may reflect the economic hard times–or evoke a bleak legacy of segregation. The North Dakota news site INFORUM reports:

In North Dakota, Native Americans are the largest minority group represented in the foster system, and their numbers are on the rise. They accounted for 29 percent of the state’s foster children in 2008 and 37 percent in 2009, state child welfare data show. The 30 percent range has been a steady trend for Native Americans in the past decade in North Dakota. Statewide, Native Americans account for 5.6 percent of the total under-18 population, according to a 2008 census report. In Minnesota, Native American foster children accounted for more than 13 percent of all foster children in 2009, but only 1.8 percent of the state’s Native American child population, according to the state’s child welfare report.

The pattern recalls an era of child welfare when white reformers exploited native peoples for messianic social-engineering experiments. Families and communities were ripped apart as agencies systematically removed native children from their families and placed them in proper white homes, for their own good. Adoptee Sandy White Hawk remarked in a 2002 report by the Child Welfare League of America, "Unfortunately, their answer to extreme poverty was to tear our families apart." The crisis led to the passage of Indian Child Welfare Act, which aimed to "promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families" by regulating the removal of native children into foster care to help preserve their original communities and culture." Child removal trends in North Dakota may or may not represent backsliding toward past injustices. But they do suggest that structural barriers and familial turmoil, including chronic poverty and mental health issues, may ultimately provoke drastic state intervention. Childhood crises may also cycle into teen and adult problems. According to the federal government, reports Indian Country Today, "in several states [American Indian/Alaska Native] youth make up 29 to 42 percent of all youth in secure confinement. The suicide rate for American Indian youth is almost twice the rate for white juveniles and is the highest of any race." To assess the scope of the problem, community advocacy groups have launched a major survey project to study Indian youth’s exposure to violence. Whatever direct influence the modern foster care system has had on the crises facing native youth today, the vestiges of history loom large over Indian communities as historical trauma passes from one generation to the next.