Addressing Disparities in the Child Welfare System

Nationally, American Indian children are three times more likely to be removed from their homes by state child welfare systems than non-Indian children according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. In Minnesota, data from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges shows, the number of American Indian children in foster care is disproportionately high—more so than in any other state.

Researchers in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies are working to address these disparities in the child welfare system to help keep American Indian families together. Their five-year, $2.3 million project, funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, engages local and regional partners with the goal of improving the delivery system for existing child welfare laws that are designed to ensure social workers and courts provide the best help possible to American Indian children.

“We’re really trying to look at how the system is designed and understand why decisions are being made the way they are,” said Priscilla Day, Ed.D., director of UMD’s Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies and lead researcher on the study. “We’re gathering data and using it to put together a blueprint for change.”

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and its complementary state law, the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act, were established decades ago to give tribal governments a stronger voice in child custody matters that involve American Indian children. Tribes’ status as sovereign nations means that each tribal citizen has political status, not just ethnic status, which is why ICWA was passed.

According to these laws, child welfare workers must identify American Indian children and make “active efforts” to work in the children’s best interest. Active efforts mean working to prevent American Indian families from breaking up when possible and working to reunite children with their families.

The laws also say children who need to be removed from their homes should first be placed with a responsible family member capable of caring for them. If that’s not possible, the next preference is with another member of the same tribe, followed by another American Indian home from a different tribe. Only as a last resort should the child be placed with a non-Indian family.

Despite these two laws being in place for years, social workers, for a multitude of reasons, don’t always take them into consideration when making decisions in child welfare.

“We’re coming together across systems to really take a deep dive to understand what’s working well and where the areas for improvement are,” said Bree Bussey, project director for the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies.

A Path to Meaningful Change

The project, now in its second year, is currently focused on finding out as much as possible about how the system works, with a focus on St. Louis County, where Duluth is located. This includes a thorough look at physical documents, such as policies and laws, but also interviews with St. Louis County human services workers, judges, tribes from across northern Minnesota, and American Indian families.

“We’re deeply involved right now in trying to understand the practice,“ Day said. “I’m impressed with people’s commitment to come together and look at what’s happening.”

What might change look like? One area in need of attention is workload, Day said. Right now, welfare workers are overwhelmed by large caseloads, making it difficult for them to even provide standard care efforts to children, let alone the active efforts required for American Indian children.

Part of the issue is that workers spend more than 40 percent of their time documenting their work, often recording the same information multiple times for different reports. Making these digital documents “talk” to each other across systems could save workers much needed time filling out redundant information.

Another area is improving the state training system. Child welfare workers have a hard job that involves tough decisions, Day said, so it’s understandable that they would err on the side of caution to best protect the children.  But a lot of workers don’t know the laws, and additional training can help ensure they take its considerations into account.

Along similar lines, the researchers will examine opportunities for increased coaching for workers who are taking on more complex cases, as well as ongoing supervision of caseloads to make sure workers are making efforts to comply with the laws.

“We are very excited about this opportunity, to be able to tap into some resources and really look at the implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act,” Bussey said. “What we really want to do is improve outcomes for children and, where possible, help keep families together.”