Despite the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978, the dramatic overrepresentation of Indigenous families in North American government child welfare systems remains one of the most urgent issues facing child welfare systems today. The Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies (The Center) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Department of Social Work addresses system change to empower Indigenous Peoples. The Center’s Anishinaabe perspective of systems change in child welfare cultivates collaborative relationships across system boundaries that involve the “heart” as well as the “head”; deep emotional understanding and spiritual connection; as well as accurate information regarding Indigenous Peoples, and relevant child welfare policies and practices. This study examines Indigenous social work and ally perspectives pertaining to 4 research questions: 1) What are central processes of child welfare systems change with Indigenous families? 2) What are case exemplars of systems change affected by the Center? 3) What are barriers to child welfare system change? 4) How can these challenges be addressed?
This paper, part of a larger ethnographic study, will focus on 13 in-depth, semi-structured, audio recorded interviews lasting from one to two hours in private locations chosen by participants. Center staff nominated participants knowledgeable about the Center (7 Indigenous, 6 white). They included tribal elders; Center administrators, educators, and researchers; Indigenous and non-Indigenous MSW alums; and an ICWA court judge. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and paralinguistic cues affecting meaning (e.g., joyful tone) or intensity of emotion (e.g., crying) were noted. Three coders used basic inductive techniques (Schwandt, 2014) to develop and apply a conceptual framework describing participants’ perspectives. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. Member checks enhanced credibility.
Participants described that effective systems change begins by building and sustaining trusting, collaborative relationships with tribal communities and elders; ongoing relationship building at the county and state levels; creating cross system linkages; and capacity building through the development of Indigenous leaders and non-Indigenous allies. Participants described examples of the Center’s positive systems change efforts: a state law to strengthen ICWA, a statewide training for Department of Human Services (DHS) workers, and an ICWA court. Barriers included structural racism, resistance or hostility from some white workers, and conflicts between Indigenous practices such as smudging at meetings, and county/state institutional policies. Barriers were addressed through persistence, “finding relatives” (collaborating with those with common commitments), and sustained relationship building at tribal, county and state levels.
Conclusions and Implications
Participants described effective child welfare systems change across sovereign Indigenous nations and settler (county and state) systems. Center staff nurture ongoing relationships to build capacity within tribal communities and government child welfare systems. The Center creates bridges across Indigenous communities and child welfare systems using Indigenous knowledge to disrupt and change the ways settler colonial systems disadvantage and dispossess Indigenous families. It provides a model for strengthening and empowering Indigenous families and communities by providing lived examples child welfare systems change to impact positive results for Indigenous families and communities.