“Navigating the child welfare system…was really harrowing. I was placed in a position where I didn’t know where my grandchildren were taken, I just knew they were in custody and that was the end of the story…When I arrived, I saw that they cut my grandson’s hair. He’s never had his hair cut since the day he was born. I was furious. I asked, “Why would you do that?” They answered, ‘It was in his eyes.’ They had no understanding of how culturally inappropriate it was to cut his hair…I knew they should be with me, so I brought up the Indian Child Welfare Act” — Sonya Begay, GRAND Voice and enrolled member of Navajo Nation
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) exists to ensure children who cannot stay with their parents are raised by extended family, or tribal members who will provide a loving home, mitigate the trauma of separation from their parents, and help them stay connected to their cultural identity. It helped Sonya Begay to gain custody of her three grandchildren from the child welfare system where they had been separated from their culture and all that was familiar to them. While in care the white foster parents caring for the children cut their hair, not realizing that cutting hair in many Native traditions signifies that someone has died or that there has been a great tragedy. The insensitive act only added to the trauma the family had already experienced. Despite the critical protections ICWA provides to families like Sonya’s, the Supreme Court is taking up a challenge to the 44-year-old law. We must protect it.
Forcibly removing children from Native families and separating them from their culture is a practice that dates back centuries. The federal government has relocated American Indian and Alaska Native people from their traditional lands and resources, forced their assimilation through mandatory boarding schools and adoptions to white families, and banned the use of tribal language, religion, and cultural practices, often through legislation such as the Native American Relocation Act. The adverse effects of this historical trauma, discrimination, and unresolved grief transmitted between generations has been shown to be strongly connected to challenges facing children and families in Native American communities today. The child welfare system has carried on the practice of removing children from Native families. While one percent of children in the U.S. are American Indian and Alaska Native, they make up two percent of the children in foster care.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in response to this history of separation and family destruction of Native communities and is now seen as the gold standard of child welfare. Before this legislation was passed in 1978, 25–35% of all Native children were removed from their homes with 85% of them placed in non-Native homes. ICWA affirms the sovereignty of tribes in child welfare and recognizes a framework of tribal courts, codes, and programs, which prioritizes placement of Native American children with their relatives or tribes except in the rarest circumstances and requires states to provide active efforts to prevent the removal of AI/AN children.
Despite this progress, disproportionate placements for American Indian and Alaskan Native families continue to persist as these children are four times more likely to be removed from their homes compared to white children. Non-Native foster or adoptive parents do not understand the historical trauma or cultural norms the child is familiar with. And families like Sonya Begay’s bear the impact.
Despite its important role in the lives of Native children and grandfamilies, ICWA’s constitutionality is being challenged by Supreme Court case Brackeen v. Haaland. Oral arguments for the case took place on November 9, 2022 with a decision expected by July 1, 2023. Taking away the only protections afforded to American Indian and Alaskan Native families would be detrimental to Native grandfamilies and the future of Indian Country. Native children represent the future of each Tribal Nation and their leadership. If the children are removed from their communities and culture, there can be no future for the Nation. The importance of ICWA is further demonstrated by the solidarity shown amongst Tribal Nations in support of this law.
To learn more about the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Brackeen v. Haaland case and how to take action, check out the Protect ICWA Campaign.
To learn more about providing culturally appropriate services for American Indian and Alaska Native grandfamilies, check out this toolkit: American Indian & Alaska Native Grandfamilies: Helping Children Thrive Through Connection to Family and Cultural Identity.