American Indian children in Michigan are the most likely to be removed from their homes due to abuse and/or neglect: 1.5 times the rate of white children and the highest of all children of color in the state, according to the Michigan Race Equity Coalition. They are also more likely to age out of the foster care system. It is disturbing, however, that the rate of investigation for abuse and/or neglect is lower compared with white children.
Removing American Indian children from their homes at higher rates is cause for alarm. Research indicates that placement in the foster care system can lead to an increased risk of homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, substance abuse, and more. Although American Indian children in Michigan fare better than their peers in other states, the disparities in the child welfare system persist, creating instability for American Indian children and their families and jeopardizing their cultural ties.
As background, Michigan is one of the top 10 states with the largest American Indian populations in the country. The state is home to 130,000 American Indians, including 14,000 children. We have 12 federally recognized tribes and the vast majority of American Indians in the state do not live on a reservation. In 2013, the Department of Human Services supervised 240 Indian child welfare cases; a number that tribal representatives believe to be understated.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, was passed by Congress in 1978 to protect the best interest of American Indian children and to promote stability and security for tribes and families. The most recent annual progress report found that to be in better compliance with ICWA, DHS needed improvements in four areas:
- Notification to Indian parents and tribes of state proceedings involving Indian children and their right to intervene.
- Placement preferences of Indian children in foster care, pre-adoptive, and adoptive homes.
- Active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family when parties seek to place a child in foster care or for adoption.
- Tribal right to intervene in state proceedings or transfer proceedings to the jurisdiction of the tribe.
To strengthen practices used in American Indian child welfare cases, the Michigan Legislature enacted the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act in 2012. However, embedding ICWA in state law is not enough. Training in the law and cultural competency for all workers at every point in the system—caseworkers, court employees, and others—is critical. Additionally, there needs to be active recruitment of Indian foster care and adoptive homes. Also important to measure compliance and improvements, along with having the ability to identify areas of inadequacy in the system, is data collection.
Finally, as we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, appreciating cultural differences and continuing to build and develop relationships with Michigan’s tribes and their leaders will truly enhance outcomes for American Indian children and their families.
– Alicia Guevara Warren