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Native Intelligence

A disproportionate number of Native American kids get removed from their homes. The state and the tribes are trying to keep Native foster kids with Native foster parents - like Kay Fiddler.
Kay Fiddler's kids (left to right): Monica, Briana, Jesus and Kieth, with Annabelle in front.

Kay Fiddler's kids (left to right): Monica, Briana, Jesus and Kieth, with Annabelle in front. Zachariah Bryan

Screaming is coming from the other room. Anabel is accusing Jesus of “acting sexy” as he pulls the collar of his t-shirt down over his shoulder. Moneka sits in the corner scrolling through her smartphone. Briana talks about boy troubles. Kieth flips through his journal, looking every bit the thoughtful teenage activist. Spongebob Squarepants is on the TV.

Foster mom Florence Kay Fiddler’s five kids looks like most kids their age. But when you quiz them about who they are, both as foster kids and Native Americans, they reveal a sense of maturity that few others their age have.

They will tell you how it makes them uncomfortable when people dress up as medicine men and Pocahantases for Halloween. How it frustrates them when teachers tell them that Christopher Columbus discovered America when Natives were here long before.

They’ll tell you how they lost their identity when they were taken away from their parents and put into foster care with people who didn’t understand their culture. And how their lives got dramatically better, and more stable, when they were placed with Kay, a 56-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, who has been running her therapeutic foster home in West Seattle for more than three decades.

More than two-thirds of the children in the state's foster care system are white. But since Native children are far more likely to be removed from their homes, they are over-represented in the system compared to their numbers in the general population. According to Partners for Our Children, an independent group that compiles statewide foster care statistics, about 42 of every 1,000 Native kids ended up in foster care or relative care in Washington last year. That 42-per-1,000 percentage is more than triple the rate for the runner-up group, African American kids, where 12.35 of every 1,000 children were removed from their homes in 2012; and almost seven times the removal rate for white kids (5.79/1,000).

Moreover, Native American kids are the least likely to exit the out-of-home care system (24.48 percent are still in out-of-home care after 48 months), and they are most likely to wind up back in the system after being reunited with their parents (26.12 percent).

It is impossible to talk about these imbalances without accounting for a long and painful Native history that includes pioneers giving Native people smallpox-infested blankets, moving Natives to reservations, sending their children to boarding schools (to “kill the Indian and save the man”) and removing Native children from their families at a huge rate (25 to 35 percent of all Native American children) before the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.

Lisa Powers blames this tragic history for a chronic cycle in Native American families. Powers is a DSHS Foster Care Licensor and a member of the Comanche Nation who has children in the Tulalip Tribe. She says that Native parents, many of whom struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, don’t know how to take care of their children. Those children, in turn, grow up not knowing how to parent.

“It’s a cycle that goes on and on,” says Powers. “We have gone through a lot of traumatic experiences as Native people and we are still working to overcome those traumas.”

Prodded by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and pressure from Native American communities, Washington State has made pairing Native foster kids with Native foster parents a priority. It isn't that non-Native parents aren't excellent caregivers, says Bob Smith, the state's Indian Child Welfare program supervisor and a member of the Skokomish Tribe. It's that "Native families just have a better idea of how to connect kids [with their culture].”

Lisa Powers works in the Native Recruitment and Retention Program. She goes to reservations, community events and powwows to encourage Native Americans to become foster parents. It’s hard, she says. After all that has happened, many are still leery of the state.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

We have a daughter and son-in-law that have been granted legal custody of a Native American child by a tribal court on the Olympic Peninsula. The child would have been placed with a qualified Native family if any had been available.

I don't think that Bryan paints a very realistic picture of the situation. An overwhelming percentage of Native foster care placements are children born to mothers with alcohol and drug addiction issues. Raising a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome is not a walk in the park. One encounters physiological barriers to learning and socialization that often simply cannot be overcome. By comparison, the cultural discomfort caused by "split-feather syndrome", while certainly important, is a rather minor obstacle.

woofer

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 5:25 p.m. Inappropriate

We are the foster home and community in the article. It's pretty good but one MAIN point we (there were actually other community members and a social worker at the interview) were trying to make is that to really do successful work with our Native youth you MUST have community support. Reading this article it looks like I'm doing that alone. I could never do any of this if I didn't have my strong community to join/be our family in the work. Our college students who come help, our elders who join in, from United states, Canada and Mexico, social workers, CASA's, everyone is a part of this traditonal/cultural and holistic approuch. The strongest support we bring in is the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors and their spirit support. We bring in to the home tutoring, drumming, ceremony, whatever we need to make whole our children's lives. This is where we differ from the regular foster homes and models such as the Mockingbird Model, rather than a hub home with satalite homes, we are all the hub at differening times,each honored for the gifts we bring to the community and each needed for the survival and reclaimation of our children. I also point out that drug and alcohol are not where we lose our parenting skills, it is the purposeful practice of genocide by western society through federal policy that has removed those traditional parenting skills and the addiction is just one of many symptoms of that genocide. It is a continuation of the "kill the indian save the man" practice, only now boarding schools are called foster care, group homes and Public Schools, and institutions that continues forced assimilation though federal, state,county and distict policies.

Florence

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

PS. most of the children I work with are diagnosed with various disorders. Most were not successful in foster care and other institutions. while it is never a "walk in the park" it is certainly more doable when you embrace the whole child, their whole spirit and community.
What we do is not really that unique, it has been done for generations, and FAS or other disorders do not prohibit us from doing our work and doing it well.
The article didn't mention that this home specializes in the highest need Native youth. So, yes, we do understand what it means to work with those issues, but because we have built a team, and others have that option to build a team too, it works. We cannot fear involving our commmunity.

Florence

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry, but race and culture are artificial constructs. To convince Native kids they cannot function in the traditional school environment is damning them with low expectations. To whit, the achievement gap between black and white kids is well documented. However, when you break that down into subgroups, caribbean/africans have achievement levels equal to or better than whites. Same with many African born or children of African immigrants. The difference? Intact families that stress academic achievement.

Seasoned

Posted Sat, Nov 9, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

As a social worker in the child welfare field for 25 years, it was heartwarming for me to read the story of Kay’s family and their dedication to helping Native kids persevere through the trauma and neglect of their early lives. The reason her family has been able to make a difference is by creating a nurturing community with high expectations that kids can’t help but resonate with. Ceremony, contact with elders, participatory learning all tap into their DNA to help them feel they are “home” and thus comfortable and capable to participate more effectively in society at large. These kids are lost without a compass to guide them through the morass of their lives. People like Kay help them head North. When are you gonna write that book!

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