Protecting Indian Children: The Importance of Culture When Working with Indian Families

By Mica Llerandi, CILS Escondido office Staff Attorney

When I worked as an attorney on my reservation, I was eager to jump into serving my tribal community. My employer, a legal aid program, provided cultural awareness training, but I incorrectly assumed it wasn’t necessary for me. In my mind, this was my reservation, this was the community I grew up in, and I knew what I needed for my job. I quickly realized that I grossly misjudged my abilities and learned that I needed to quickly shed my biases and prejudices to effectively serve my clients.

As service providers, it is easy to overlook our personal biases and prejudices and ignore the importance of cultural humility. This is especially true in the child welfare/dependency context as service providers often encounter families in crisis. Services providers may respond with kneejerk reactions as opposed to meeting the family and trying to understand their needs. These inadvertent reactions often cause the family to distrust the service provider and hurt the chance to develop a healthy relationship with the provider.

In order to effectively serve our Indian families, we need to be aware that our good intentions might ignore our Indian families’ beliefs or values. When exploring how to serve our Indian families better, a great resource to start is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Culture Card. While this culture card is not the final authority in cultural awareness and humility, the guide provides a snapshot of cultural concepts and issues to be aware of when meeting with Indian individuals.

Cultural humility is especially important in child welfare because cultural supports may be what the Indian family needs. By ignoring the value of culture or incorrectly assuming the Indian family does not want or already have cultural support, service providers risk leaving a hole in the family’s support network. Without this support, the child welfare system can easily fail our Indian families. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to establish minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children and to combat the removals occurring due to the misunderstanding of Indian cultural child-rearing practices.

In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) examined the implementation of the ICWA and determined that states implemented the ICWA inconsistently. An area of need was in providing “active efforts” to prevent the breakup of Indian families. To combat this, the BIA issued binding regulations, added a definition for active efforts with examples, and highlighted that active efforts should be provided in a manner consistent with the prevailing social and cultural conditions of the tribe to maintain the Indian family.  25 C.F.R. § 23.2, 2016. Therefore, as a matter of best practice, service providers coming into contact with an Indian family should consider what partnerships with the tribe or Indian social programs could serve or support an Indian family.

California responded to the release of the BIA Regulations by passing Assembly Bill 3176 (AB 3176), which codified the 2016 BIA ICWA Regulations. AB 3176 went into effect on January 1, 2019, and the current definition for active efforts, “the affirmative, active, thorough, and timely efforts intended primarily to maintain or reunite an Indian child with their family,” can be found in Welfare & Institutions Code §224.1. The law proceeds to provide 11 examples of active efforts, here are a few examples:

  • Conducting a comprehensive assessment of the circumstances of the Indian child’s family, with a focus on safe reunification as the most desirable goal.
  • Identifying appropriate services and helping the parents overcome barriers, including actively assisting the parents in obtaining those services.
  • Identifying, notifying, and inviting representatives of the Indian child’s tribe to participate in providing support and services to the Indian child’s family and in family team meetings, permanency planning, and resolution of placement issues.
  • Offering and employing all available and culturally appropriate family preservation strategies and facilitating the use of remedial and rehabilitative services provided by the child’s tribe.
  • Identifying community resources, including housing, financial assistance, transportation, mental health, and substance abuse services, and peer support services, and actively assisting the Indian child’s parents or, when appropriate, the child’s family, in utilizing and accessing those resources.
  • Considering alternative ways to address the needs of the Indian child’s parents and, where appropriate, the family, if the optimum services do not exist or are not available.

When explaining the purpose of the 11 examples of active efforts, the BIA Regulations states this is not an exhaustive list and the minimum actions required to meet active efforts is determined on a case-by-case basis. 80 Fed. Reg. 38778, 38790 (June 14, 2016). Ultimately, “active efforts should be provided in partnership with the Indian child’s Tribe, and should be provided in a manner consistent with the prevailing cultural and social conditions and way of life in the Indian child’s Tribe.” Id.

So, what are the best practices for working with Indian families? The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) prepared a toolkit titled: “Tribal Best Practices.” The toolkit provides important things to keep in mind, such as:

  • Focus on building trust with the family,
  • Remain non-judgmental,
  • Remember that each family is different; there is no one way to respond,
  • Be realistic about expectations,
  • Highlight strengths of the family, and
  • Take a holistic approach and think outside the box for community supports/resources.

The toolkit and other resources for working with Indian families can be found at the NICWA’s website. The toolkit can be found here.

In addition to digital resources, the NICWA hosts an annual conference to discuss upcoming trends and research in Indian child welfare/protection. This year the 38th Annual Conference is scheduled to run from March 30-April 1, 2020, and will be conducted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. CILS, in collaboration with County Counsel from San Diego County, is scheduled to present on the role counties and tribes play in state child welfare cases. If you are interested in attending the virtual conference, you can contact the NICWA at training@nicwa.org or check back to their website.

More training and self-help information about ICWA here.

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