American Indian children too often in foster care
Utah Officials try to keep children in their homes, out of
More than 33 years after Congress passed the Indian Child
Welfare Act, American Indian children in Utah are still being
removed from their homes and placed in foster care far too often
— a troubling statistic that is the focus of the state’s tribes
and government officials.
True, there has been a vast improvement in out-of-home
placements over those decades.
In 1976, two years before passage
of the act, American Indian children in
Utah were 1,500 times more likely to be in foster care than
other children in the state,
said Utah Appeals Court Judge William Thorne, who spoke March 16
at the first Indian Child Welfare Conference to be held in Salt
Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978
Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent breakup
of American Indian families after a 1976 report showed “an
alarmingly high percentage” of children were in “non-Indian”
foster and adoptive homes or institutions. It governs what is
supposed to happen if an American Indian child is placed in
state custody, giving tribal courts jurisdiction for children
who are members or eligible for membership in a recognized
Today, American Indian children are four times more likely to be
in foster care,
a rate still significant enough to place Utah in
the top 10 states for disproportionate rates.
"They are better than they were, but they’re not where they need
to be yet," said Thorne, who is a member of the Pomo tribe and
serves on the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. "The
children are still out of home more often than necessary."
The conference drew members of every tribe in Utah, judges,
caseworkers, foster parents and even a state lawmaker to ponder
why that is the case and what to do about it. Brent Platt,
director of the state Division of Child and Family Services,
opened the dialogue last spring when he met with elders in a
two-day peace circle gathering to air views of child welfare.
"I feel like we need to do a better job with our Native American
kids," said Platt, especially along the Wasatch Front where the
bulk of the state’s American Indian population resides.
American Indians comprise just 1% of Utah’s population
but make up 6% of all children in foster care.
said cultural differences, rather than racism, are likely behind
the numbers. Two-thirds of children are in foster care because
of neglect rather than abuse, which Thorne pointed out is often
subjective and amounts to "someone decided their own family was
not good enough."
That notion was amplified in Utah through the federal boarding
school program and the Indian Placement Program, which The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operated between
1947 and 1996, he said. Through the program, thousands of
American Indian children were placed in
Mormon homes, where it
was thought they would receive better educations and be easily
assimilated into mainstream society. But critics said it
undermined tribal ties and a sense of identity.
Thorne said one study found that American Indian kids raised in
non-Indian homes were more likely to have a negative view of
their own culture, leading researchers to conclude the children
were left without positive images of their own heritage. Another
troubling sign: American Indian youths have a suicide rate that
is 1.5 to three times higher than that for children from other
ethnic groups in the U.S. When considering just American Indian
youths, the rate is six times higher for those living in
non-Indian homes, according to one report.
"We really need to be thinking about doing things a different
way," said Thorne, especially given the outcomes for children
who age out of foster care. They are more likely to be
undereducated, to have a mental disorder or post-traumatic
stress syndrome and to end up homeless, in jail or dead within
In Utah, a huge gap persists between the number of children in
foster care and culturally appropriate homes for them.
156 children in care and about 11 state licensed foster homes
where the primary provider is American Indian, according to DCFS.
"There is a huge need," said Mike Hamblin, director of
foster/adoptive family recruitment for the Utah Foster Care
But Hamblin said many would-be foster families decline to take
American Indian children because the Indian Child Welfare Act
makes adoption, following termination of parental rights, so
difficult. The act, designed to protect children’s best
interests as well as help preserve stability of American Indian
tribes, specifies that priority in foster care placements and
adoptions of American Indian children is to be given to extended
family, other tribe members or other Indian families.
But few states follow the act to the letter, Thorne said,
particularly when it comes to looking at extended family on both
sides for placement and adoption. And fostering ongoing
relationships with family could help avoid detrimental outcomes,
he said — something tribal courts may be better able to do.
"The challenge is just getting foster families to open up to the
possibilities of supporting children’s relationships with
extended family members," Hamblin said.
Anita Fineday, chief judge for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe,
said her tribe suspends rather than terminates parental rights,
leaving open the possibility for contact even if the parent does
not have custody. It also preserves extended family
That idea resonated for Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, who
attended the conference.
"I like the idea that they don’t terminate parental rights —
even if all they do is send a picture and a letter one time a
year," said Watkins, who has a Navajo foster son who is now an
adult. "I think they are doing things we should be doing."
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