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Native American children deserve more than an apology

In a recent blog post, Moira Szilagyi, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), writes: “While we know that everyone cares about children, especially their own children, the AAP cares about all children, each.” Maybe, but it’s a shame that the AAP seems to care more about politics.

The group, which supports things like double mastectomies for teenage girls who claim they were born in the wrong body and who said masking young children would no effect on the development of language skills, has now decided to decide on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Members of the AAP and their colleagues from the American Medical Association have deposit an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Haaland v. Brackeen, where oral arguments will be heard this fall. At issue in Haaland v. Brackeen is whether India’s child welfare law discriminates on the basis of race and whether the law oversteps the powers of Congress by commandeering state courts and agencies to carry out a federal child placement program. More concerned with being politically on the safe side than protecting the safety of children, the AAP argues that the ICWA is not only constitutional but vital to the welfare of Indian children.

The ICWA, which was passed in 1978, was originally intended to prevent child welfare agencies from removing Indian children from their parents and placing them with white families. Today, ICWA is responsible for a separate and unequal child protection system. Adopted Native American children — whether they live on a reservation or their DNA is Native American, or even whatever their biological parents’ wishes — can be adopted only by other Native Americans. Even Native American children who have been in foster homes with non-Indians for years must be adopted by a Native family.

For nearly a century, Native American children were forced to attend white-run boarding schools, a policy that critics say helped weaken tribal ties.
For nearly a century, Native American children were forced to attend white-run boarding schools, a policy that critics say helped weaken tribal ties.
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
There is a view within Native American society that tribes are like extended families and that tribal ties should be maintained by any means necessary.
There is a view within Native American society that tribes are like extended families and that tribal ties should be maintained by any means necessary.
Denver Post via Getty Images

This madness continues even when abused. When other American children are permanently separated from abusive parents using a “termination of parental rights” (TPR) procedure, the state must find “clear and convincing evidence” to proceed. But when Native American children experience extreme abuse, ICWA says the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and that he must do so with the testimony of an expert witness. Like Timothy Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute Remarks“It is a higher standard than that which applies in criminal cases.”

So, through ICWA, we are forcing Native American children to live with abusive and neglectful families longer than we would forcing their white, black, Hispanic, or Asian counterparts. If and when we finally get them out of these dangerous situations, they may be left in foster care limbo for much longer.

Family separation cases, say the law's supporters, have contributed to "historical trauma" within native communities that continue to negatively impact the tribes to this day.
The cases of family separation, say the law’s supporters, contributed to “historic trauma” within Indigenous communities that continues to negatively impact tribes to this day.
AFP via Getty Images

According to Adoption and Family Safety Act of 1997, when children are in foster care for more than 15 of the last 22 months, states are expected to take action to terminate parental rights. But thanks to ICWA, indigenous children can and do spend much longer periods in care. In Minnesota, for example, nearly 200 Aboriginal children have been in care for over three years. This is a higher raw number than for children of any other race, despite the fact that Indian children make up only 2% of the state’s population.

So why does the AAP support a policy that keeps Indigenous children in violent homes, keeps them longer in foster care, and prevents them from finding adoptive families?

According to the amicus brief: “Tribes are, in effect, extended families. AI/AN children have supportive ties not just with their parents, and not just with their close relatives, but with a larger community. “

The AAP also claimed that masking children during the pandemic would have little impact on their language skills.  Recent data has proven them wrong.
The AAP also claimed that masking children during the pandemic would have little impact on their language skills. Recent data has proven them wrong.
AFP via Getty Images
A history of forced placement of Native American children with white families has helped to focus on keeping Native children within Native communities, even when it goes against the best interests of the child.
A history of forced placement of Native American children with white families has helped to focus on keeping Native children within Native communities, even when it goes against the best interests of the child.
Genevieve Naylor

There is no doubt that, all things being equal, staying with extended family is a good option for children when their parents cannot care for them. Moreover, staying in one’s own community is preferable to being uprooted. But when children have been abused or neglected by their parents, all things are certainly not equal.

On the one hand, the dysfunctions that affect the parents – substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence – often also affect the extended family. Second, the extended family often fails to keep children away from the very adults who abuse those children. Third, there are not enough Native American families able to adopt, so Indian children stay longer in foster care. And finally, the ICWA allows children to be taken away from caregivers they have known for years – and from places they may have lived for years – simply because those caregivers are not Native American.

Is this really what pediatricians in our country recommend? Would they do it to their own children? Or are Indigenous children just different?

The brief also rightly notes that “AI/AN children suffer disproportionately from a wide variety of challenges to their health and well-being, and suffer from a high rate of traumatic and stressful experiences, such as neglect”. The AAP attributes these problems to “historical trauma”. Maybe. But the fact remains that Native American children today are more than twice as likely to be victimized or die from, abuse than white children. Parents are ultimately responsible for these statistics, not historical trauma.

There is no doubt that Indian families and communities have been treated poorly by the US government. The forced removal of children to boarding schools a century ago took a heavy toll on many tribes. But the argument that honoring historical trauma is more important than removing children from abusive homes or moving them out of foster care is purely political and not backed by science. The idea that we should compensate for past injustices by keeping Native American children in danger is not sound medicine – it is nothing short of monstrous.

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