Our country has a terrible history with regard to our African-American and Native American citizens. Centuries of racism have led to consequences that last until today, and racism continues to be a fact of life affecting minorities around the nation. But attempts to address historical wrongs can end up further victimizing the very people we are trying to help. A case in point is the Indian Child Welfare Act. While the recognition of these unintended consequences is spreading, some activists are trying to replicate the same harmful “protections” for African American children.
“The removal of Indian children from their natural homes and tribal setting has been and continues to be a national crisis,” according to a report issued in 1976. And indeed, it was estimated that 25% to 35% of Native American children had been removed from their homes and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions. About 90% were being raised by non-Indians.
To put an end to “the wholesale separation of Indian children from their families” Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. ICWA recognized tribal sovereignty over custodial decisions about Native American children, required that child welfare agencies make “active efforts” (defined as greater than the “reasonable efforts” required for other children) to keep Native American children with their families, and established a hierarchy of preferred placements, with family or tribe members as the preferred placements.
Unfortunately, ICWA in practice has had unintended consequences, depriving Native American children of the rights given to other children and putting the wishes of the tribe above the interests of the child, as I described in a recent post. Because of ICWA, 26-month Lauryn Whiteshield and her twin sister were removed from a non-Indian foster family with whom they had spent more than a year and placed with her grandfather and his wife, despite her long history of child neglect and the fact that there were five other children in the household. But Lauryn never reached her third birthday. Her step-grandmother threw her down an embankment and killed her.
Ironically, a law designed to prevent family separations has turned into a vehicle that separates children from the only family they have known. Two-year-old Andy had lived with his foster parents for almost his entire life. But when they filed to adopt him, tribal officials intervened because of his Navajo and Cherokee ancestry. They wanted to send him to New Mexico to live with strangers and a Texas judge agreed, even though Andy’s birth parents approved of the adoption.
Andy’s foster parents appealed successfully, and eventually the tribe changed its mind. But Texas, Louisiana and Indiana filed a lawsuit along with the foster parents of Andy and two other children, to ensure that no more children would be threatened with removal from their families because of their race. On October 4, 2018, a federal judge in Texas agreed, ruling that ICWA’s requirement of differential treatment based on race violated Native American children’s right to equal protection under the law. (See analyses by the Chronicle of Social Change and the Goldwater Institute.) The decision has been appealed and the appeals court has issued a stay of the Texas judge’s ruling.
Like Native American children, African-American children have been overrepresented in foster care, adoption, and involvement in child welfare systems. According to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States in 2014. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care.
In order to address the racial disparity in child welfare, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like family group decision making, workforce retraining for “cultural competence,” and attempts to recruit a more diverse workforce. It is not clear that any of these approaches have been successful, in part because disproportional representation in child welfare may be due more to the historical effects of past racism than to a racist child welfare system, as I described in an earlier post.
There is no direct evidence that any of these policies have been harmful, although analysts have certainly expressed concern that artificially trying to equalize the proportion of black and white children removed from their homes could result in less protection for black children. However, things could get a lot worse. Black children could suffer similar consequences as Native American children are suffering if states decide to implement ICWA-like “protections” for them.
And indeed, two Minnesota legislators have proposed the Minnesota African American Preservation Act (MAAPA). Based on ICWA, MAAPA would set a higher bar for removing African American children from their homes than white children. Instead of requiring “reasonable efforts” to prevent removal and to reunify family as current law requires, MAAPA would require “active efforts,” the same term used in ICWA. MAAPA specifically defines these efforts and states that they must be greater than the reasonable efforts required for other children.
MAAPA would create a new bureaucracy paid for by taxpayers to oversee the new requirements. An “African American Child Well-being Department” within the Department of Human Services would receive notification of all cases involving African-American children and “directly oversee, review, and consult on case plans and services” offered to these children. The law would also create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council “to help formulate policies and procedures relating to African-American child welfare services, to ensure that African American families are provided with all possible services and opportunities to care for their children in their homes.” MAAPA would also authorize a set of grants to fund services specifically for African-American families.
So what would the consequences be for African-American children? Like ICWA for Indian children, MAAPA would establish a substandard set of protections for African-American children. The higher bar for child removal and the lower bar for family reunification could well result in more children being left in, or returned to, homes where they are in danger.
The creation of new bureaucracies based on race would create a fragmented child welfare system based upon the belief that black children and families are fundamentally different from others. Moreover, it might divert funding away from desperately needed uses like adequate staffing and pay for child welfare social workers.
There has been a lot of talk about identity politics and its effect on recent elections and party preferences. ICWA and MAAPA are examples of what might be called “identity policy,” in which people are treated differently based on their genetic ancestry. This is not the right direction for our country.
ICWA is under attack because it sets up a separate–and inferior–set of protections for Indian children. MAAPA would do the same thing for African American children. By all means, let us do what we can to eliminate discrimination by child protective services. But denying these children the right to equal protection under law is exactly the wrong way to help them.