Child Abuse and Death within Indian Country

Systematic Literature Review

Story Highlights
  • When one boils down the entirety of federal Indian policy – just how does our federal government view tribal members?  Indeed, why are children treated as financial assets, and adults treated as children?
  • How do physically and sexually abused children respond when told their life of trauma is not only best for them, but that there are no alternatives?
  • Have children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act been consciously placed by courts and social services into dangerous living situations?
  • Elizabeth Morris is the administrator of the ‘Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare’ - a national non-profit she and her husband, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, founded in 2004. Ms. Morris has been writing, lobbying, and advocating on issues related to federal Indian policy since 1995 and is currently working on her PhD in Public Policy at Liberty University. Ms. Morris graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Interdisciplinary Studies: Government and Policy, Communication, and Health Science magna cum laude in August 2016 and earned her Master of Arts in Public Policy with Distinction in July 2019, both at Liberty University. Her Master Thesis is titled: "The Philosophical Underpinnings and Negative Consequences of the Indian Child Welfare Act.’ Ms. Morris also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministries; Associate of Science (Registered Nurse), a Diploma of Bible & Missions, and is the author of the book, ‘Dying in Indian Country.’

By Elizabeth Morris, Winter 2016

“…there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe…”

Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978


Data concerning deaths of children placed under the Indian Child Welfare Act is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Tribal governments are not required to collect or share the outcomes of children affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act, and after extensive research, it is doubtful a comprehensive database with this information currently exists. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “…incidents of child maltreatment that occur under a tribe’s exclusive jurisdiction and where tribal services are provided are not necessarily reported to the state and included in national data systems” (NICWA 2015). Janet Franson, retired homicide investigator and founder of ‘Lost and Missing in Indian Country,’ wrote in reference to children missing within the last decade, “…there were all kinds of missing N/A people in Indian Country [that] were not getting the attention they deserved. Not from law enforcement and not from any national entity for missing persons. My belief is that at least 50% of those missing are homicide victims” (Franson, 2106).

In an April 2016, interview with The Chronicle of Social Change, Administration on Children, Youth and Families Commissioner Rafael López confirmed the absence of ICWA data, stating, “Not being able to articulate very clearly what’s happening to all children, let alone American Indian and Alaskan Native children, is unacceptable’ (Kelly 2016). In 2015, the ACF initiated database collection for all children of tribal heritage who present before a court for foster care, but it didn’t go far enough. “HHS had determined that it did not have jurisdiction to collect information on Native American youth through the enforcement authority regarding ICWA and, therefore, was not able to make the requested changes or additions to the AFCARS data elements regarding ICWA” (Kelly 2016).

However, since then, “…legal counsel re-examined the issue and determined it is within ACF’s existing authority to collect state-level ICWA-related data on American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children in child welfare systems…” (Kelly 2016) All 50 States have now received guidelines pertaining to the data they are to keep. Obviously, it will take time for the ACF to collect and evaluate the data.  Complicating matters, several tribal entities are now claiming “data sovereignty,” with the right to govern how data concerning their membership is collected and used, leaving an open question of manipulation and accuracy. That all said, reporting on what is known in the immediate remains necessary, as the effect of ICWA on children today remains critical. With this reality in mind, we will identify some correlations that suggest causation, using data from the very sources that support and promote the ICWA.

Have children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act been consciously placed by courts and social services into dangerous living situations?

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, “declar[ing] that it is the policy of this Nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes…”. Since that time, there have been numerous anecdotal and occasionally documented reports of children removed from admittedly safe homes outside of Indian Country, only to be placed in questionable homes within Indian Country where they have been abused or sometimes murdered. Many of the children affected by the ICWA are multi-heritage and have never lived in Indian Country prior to being placed under the jurisdiction of the ICWA.  Many come from families who left Indian Country over a generation ago due to a high level of crime and corruption on their home reservation. The national dilemma has become whether the “best interest” of children, along with their right to safety, privacy, and choice, is of less priority than tribal sovereignty and the future of the tribe.

Every state has statutes addressing child protection, foster care and adoption, under which children of every heritage could receive the same standard of protection.  However, children deemed eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe are exempt from these state mandated protections. Through the prevalence of accounts from individuals and families affected by ICWA, there appears to be a troubling percentage who have been drastically harmed following intervention and placement through the ICWA. It is probable an unacceptable percentage of children have been hurt by the Indian Child Welfare Act.

White papers concerning the benefits of ICWA are readily available from tribal governments, organizations, and the federal agencies that support tribal governments. Finding documented information concerning children who have been negatively affected by the ICWA is much more difficult. This is because tribal governments are the primary aggregators of statistics concerning their memberships and they are not required to report all of their data to federal agencies.

Rather than ask the question of how the Indian Child Welfare Act has affected the ‘best interest’ of children – which is too subjective for measurement – we seek an answer to as to whether children have been deliberately placed as a result of ICWA intervention into homes known for violence, sexual abuse, or criminal activity. The answer could be used to establish equal protection for all United States citizens, no matter their heritage or age.

Search terms will include:

  • Indian Child Welfare Act
  • Native American Indian Reservation
  • Indian Child
  • Murder
  • Death
  • Sexual abuse (as is sometimes associated with death)
  • Child abuse
  • Indian child foster care
  • Indian child adoption
  • Obituary


Procedures to ensure a comprehensive balance will include literature published by tribal entities and organizations, state, and federal agencies, foster and adoptive care organizations, non-profit advocacies, health organizations, and letters from affected individuals and families. It is important to include non-tribal entities in the study in order to ensure a comprehensive balance, as many of the children affected by ICWA have never lived in Indian Country and come from multi-heritage families.

Search engines, databases, and scholarly journal publications to be used:

  • Indian Health Service
  • State child protection agencies
  • S. Census
  • National Indian Child Welfare Association reports
  • Administration for Children and Families reports
  • Local obituaries
  • Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare


Toddler Lauryn Whiteshield was murdered a little over a month after her arrival to her grandfather’s home in the spring of 2013. She and her three-year-old twin sister were taken from a safe, loving home in Bismarck and placed with their grandfather and his girlfriend, a woman known to have been abusive to children in the past.  This happened during a period when both the BIA and US Attorney’s office had taken over law enforcement and social services on the Spirit Lake Reservation due to a rash of uninvestigated child homicides and were supposedly monitoring placements to prevent further murders.  This case did get media attention in North Dakota, and as a result, the perpetrator was quickly arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned all within five months. However, none of the officials who were responsible for placing her in the home were held accountable.  Jeanine Russell, the non-native foster mom the girls were taken from, read a victim’s impact statement for the sentencing of the murderer of Lauryn.  She asked the judge to hold the perpetrator accountable, but also hold the broken system accountable. The federal government, she said, allowed it to happen, and “ICWA can be an evil law when twisted to fit the tribes wants or needs” (CAICW 2014).

From the Goldwater Institute concerning Lauryn, “The forced transfer from a safe, loving foster family to a home that posed great and obvious danger to the girls did not happen in a third-world country but in the United States. It did not happen 40 or 60 years ago but in 2013. And it did not happen because the court ignored the law but because it followed it. Had any of the child custody laws of the 50 states been applied, in all likelihood Lauryn would be alive today. That is because state laws require consideration of the “best interests of the child” in determining termination of parental rights, foster placements, and adoptions. That bedrock rule protects all American children—except children of Native American ancestry, like Lauryn. Although she had never lived on a reservation, because of Lauryn’s ancestry, she was made subject to the Indian tribe’s jurisdiction, which determined it was better to “reunify” her with a grandfather with whom she had never lived instead of the non-Indian foster family who had raised her from infancy and wanted to adopt her.” (Bolick 2015).

Who are the children

Patrice Kunesh, in a report published in the South Dakota Law Review, noted there was “a steady and substantial increase in the American Indian population in the past century, from a low of 250,000 in 1900 to 524,000 in 1960, to 1.96 million in 1990, and over 4 million in the year 2000. (Kunesh 2007, 7) The largest tribal government in the year 2000 was the Cherokee Nation with 729,533 members, and the Cree Nation was the smallest, with 7,734 members. The States with the heaviest AI/AN populations are Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, North & South Dakota, and Montana” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005).

A reading of varied Indian Country sources of statistics can be confusing and at times contradictory.  According to the Northwest Frontier Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, the 2000 Census indicated “American Indians make up one to two percent of the United States population, with greater than 500 American Indian tribes and 250 Alaska Native villages.” (NW Frontier ATTC 2003). The Indian Country Child Trauma Center, also citing the 2000 census, related that “38% of the AI/AN population is under the age of 18; 9% of the population is under the age of 5,” “4.1 million U.S. residents identified as American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone or in combination with one or more races,” and “2.5 million who reported as American Indian or Alaska Native alone represented 0.9% of the population” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005). These last statistics reflect the high percentage of multi-racial families – and therefore the high percentage of non-tribal extended family.

The Center for Native American Youth correctly reported 566 federally-recognized tribes located in 35 states in 2014 but appears to have erroneously claimed the 2000 census put 47 percent of AI/ANs on reservations or other US Census-defined tribal areas” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). Most sources agree statistics show over 75% of Native Americans live outside of Indian Country, with many families having left the reservation system a generation or more ago.  In fact, the CNAY has quoted the 2011 estimate by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH) that only “22% of AI/ANs lived on reservations or other US Census-defined tribal areas” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). CNAY also mishandled numbers when referring to AI/AN’s below the age of 18, stating, “The ‘media’ [sic] age of this group is 29.7 years” (Center for Native American Youth 2011).

However, CNAY did clarify a point other sources omit: “According to the 2010 Census, there are approximately 5.2 million self-identified American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) living in the US, of whom 2 million qualify for federal services” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). This statement indicates that while many tribal entities use the larger, ‘self-identified’ census number when wanting Indian Country to appear as large as possible, the enrolled, federally recognized AI/AN population is not 5.2 million, but only “an estimated 2 million” – those being the ones eligible for federal services. The balance may self-identify as Native American but are not enrolled in a federally recognized reservation. This could be for any number of reasons, including that they have heritage, but do not meet the qualifications for enrollment; that they have heritage, but consciously choose not to enroll; or they have no actual heritage, but have been told they do, believe they do, or wish they did.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs confirms the smaller numbers with a set of consistent but older statistic: “According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the estimated population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race, as of July 1, 2007, was 4.5 million, or 1.5 per cent of the total U.S. population.  In the BIA’s 2005 American Indian Population and Labor Force Report, the latest available, the total number of enrolled members of the (then) 561 federally recognized tribes was shown to be less than half the Census number, or 1,978,099 (BIA 2016).

Still, most tribal entities currently quote the larger number (now 5.2 million) when discussing the size of the tribal population nationwide, and use comparable numbers when discussing the number of children under the authority of the ICWA: “Currently, 5.2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives reside within the United States a number constituting 2% of the American population (US Census Bureau, 2011). (Hyland 2014, 4) The CNAY, although having confirmed there are only about 2 million enrolled tribal members in all the nation, goes on to claim “There are currently over 2.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) under the age of 24 living in the United States” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).  The ICWA only pertains to children eligible for enrollment.

Poverty as source of child trauma

There are over 2 million children and young adults in the United States who have been identified by others as having AI/AN heritage, but most have never experienced reservation life. Tribal organizations appear confused as to whether that is good or bad in relation to poverty.  When explaining the catalyst for social problems on the reservation, poverty is almost always cited. According to the NCAI Policy Research Center, “The poverty rate among AI/ANs in 2010 was 28% (OMH), and 32.4% of the population under-18 lives in poverty” (Center for Native American Youth 2014), and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates for AI/ANs in 2011 were at 14.6% “…Some tribal communities report persistent rates of unemployment above 80%” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).

The organization ‘National Relief Charities’ explains that major health issues among the population are due to poverty, reporting “Life expectancy for American Indians has improved yet still trails that of other Americans by a few years. American Indians have a diabetes epidemic — the highest in the U.S. The tuberculosis rate for American Indians is 7 times higher. Cancer-related disparities for American Indians are higher than for any minority group in the U.S., mainly due to poverty and lack of access.”9 (NRC 2009). Even the office of the United States President has weighed in on the effects of poverty in Indian Country, stating, “…Native children and youth grapple with a number of extraordinary challenges that stem from severe poverty. Schools that serve them are often not equipped to address these complex needs—mental health, nutrition, wellness, substance abuse, family life issues, exposure to bullying and violence, housing shortages, and other critical needs (Executive Office of the President 2014, 20).

The Department of Justice agreed, reporting, “Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and victimization,” an advisory committee created by former Attorney General Eric Holder to study violence against AI/AN children said in its November 2014 final report. The co-chairs of the committee also said in the report’s cover letter, “Domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are widespread” and “Continual exposure to violence has a devastating impact on child development and can have a lasting impact on basic cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions. We cannot stand by and watch these children—who are the future of American Indian and Alaska Native communities—destroyed by relentless violence and trauma” (Flatten 2015).

That same year, another organization reported, “One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty…” (Horwitz 2014) This is much less than the Center for Native American Youth had reported. Further, one could see that percentage as a glass ¾ full – in that the majority of children of heritage do not live in poverty and could reflect the reality that most children who are counted in that 2.1 million do not live in Indian Country – where the federal government has confirmed extreme poverty is affecting a possible 640,000 reservation children.

But inexplicably, despite the serious, grim reports by the office of President Obama, DOJ, and others concerning the appalling effects of poverty on these children, when tribal leaders and their supporters are defending ICWA and the quality of life in Indian Country, poverty becomes a non-issue. David Simmons, the government affairs director for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said “it is unfair to use white, middle-class standards to judge Indian parents. Poverty and crime are rampant in many areas on and off Indian land, but that does not mean individual families in those areas would not make good parents” (Flatten 2015).

Documented levels of violence

He is absolutely correct. Poverty does not equate bad parenting, nor does it cause all the social ails it is accused of. Money is not the sole measure of productivity or success, nor is it essential to happiness. Many low-income families thrive, leading loving, productive, and content lives. The more likely source of despair within Indian Country is not poverty, but crime, alcoholism, and the sexual abuse and violence faced by many children in Indian Country.

Reports dating back years cite the high rate of violence against children in Indian Country. According to a 1999 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, “AI/AN children make up 2.5% of all confirmed maltreatment cases nationally (highest incidence ratio of any racial group on available data nationwide- DHHS, 1999). NICWA admitted the high number of deaths, stating, “Neglect endangers AI/AN children 4 times more often than physical abuse and results in numerous child fatalities (NICWA, 1999), and the Department of Justice said, “There is one substantiated report of child victim of abuse or neglect for every 30 AI/AN children aged 14 or younger” (Department of Justice, 1999).

The Center for Disease Control stated in 2004, “AI/AN women report more domestic violence than men or women from any other race” and “One study found AI/AN women were twice as likely to be abused (physically or sexually) by a partner than the average woman” (CDC 2004) (University of Oklahoma 2013, 16). This statistic for women has relevance for children, when at the ‘First Hearing of the Advisory Committee of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence,’ it was admitted that studies show “…batterers are more than four times more likely than other men to sexually abuse their children or step-children” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 3).  According to Lonna Hunter, Project Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice, “Co-occurrence is looking at the issue of maltreatment, but it’s also connecting this to the rate of child sexual abuse. The rate of child sexual abuse by a batterer is four to six times higher than a non-batterer. So, those dynamics of child sexual abuse occur largely when there is domestic violence present in those families. When we look at the high rate of child sexual abuse in Indian Country and violence against Native women, it suggests that the rates could be even higher when considering the correlation to under reporting” and “This is echoed in the testimony by Elsie Boudreau, a Yup’ik survivor and child advocate from Alaska. Boudreau says that in 2010, 40 percent of children seen at Child Advocacy Centers for child sexual abuse were Alaska Native, even though we only represent 15 percent of the entire population in the state of Alaska. That is just strictly unacceptable” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 27-28).

Ms. Hunter also said, “I traveled to Rosebud with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute to look at the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment to do a site visit there and what I understood from interviewing child welfare workers, domestic violence advocates, survivors, and law enforcement, was that every child had witnessed violence or it was believed that every child had witnessed violence on the Rosebud Reservation” and “There were 25,000 calls to law enforcement in one year and there were 25,000 folks who live in Rosebud, and at least two children a day were victims of crime. That is astronomical. That is off of the charts compared to the co-occurrence of child maltreatment and domestic violence in the mainstream”  (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 26).

Darla Thiele, Director of a diversionary project within the Spirit Lake Juvenile Court System, stated, “We have many youth on our reservation who have stories to tell. We have young ladies who on weekends are at home taking turns with their siblings holding the door shut while the party is going on in the living room. And they take turns holding the door shut to make nobody comes in to bother any of the siblings (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 55).

Thomas Sullivan, former Regional Administrator of the Administration of Children and Families in Denver, stated in his 12th Mandated Report concerning the Spirit Lake Reservation to the ACF office in DC, February 2013,

“In these 8 months I have filed detailed reports concerning all of the following:

    1. The almost 40 children returned to on-reservation placements in abusive homes, many headed by known sex offenders, at the direction of the Tribal Chair. These children remain in the full-time care and custody of sexual predators available to be raped on a daily basis. Since I filed my first report noting this situation, nothing has been done by any of you to remove these children to safe placements.
    2. The 45 children who were placed, at the direction of Tribal Social Services (TSS), BIA social workers, BIA supervised TSS social workers and the BIA funded Tribal Court, in homes where parents were addicted to drugs and/or where they had been credibly accused of abuse or neglect. Since I filed my first report noting these placements, nothing has been done to remove these children to safe placements. I trust the Tribal Court, with the recent resignation of a judge who failed a drug test, will begin to be responsive to the children whose placements they oversee.
    3. The 25 cases of children most of whom were removed from physically and sexually abusive homes based on confirmed reports of abuse as well as some who still remain in those homes. Neither the BIA nor the FBI have taken any action to investigate or charge the adults in these homes for their criminally abusive acts. Many, of the adults in these homes are related to, or are close associates of, the Tribal Chair or other Council members.

“Since I filed my first report detailing these failures to investigate, charge, indict, prosecute those adults, my sources and I have observed nothing to suggest this has changed. Those adults remain protected by the law enforcement which by its inaction is encouraging the predators to keep on hunting for and raping children at Spirit Lake (Sullivan 2013).

             Despite Mr. Sullivan having been fired by his DC superiors in May 2016, for continuing to report the abuse, there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement among reporters that abuse is rampant. “Indian children suffer the second-highest rate of abuse or neglect of any ethnic group, behind African Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and “Indians also have the second-highest rate of homicide deaths and infant mortality, behind African Americans” (Flatten 2015).

In 2014, the CNAY reported, “Violence, including intentional injuries, homicide and suicide, account for 75% of deaths for AI/AN youth aged 12 to 20” (SAMHSA). (Center for Native American Youth 2014). “Types of crimes that Native Americans are likely to be victimized by include: murder, assault, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and gang violence” (Tighe, 2014).(Hyland 2014, 4).  “Adolescent AI/ANs have death rates 2 to 5 times the rate of whites in the same age group (SAMHSA), resulting from higher levels of suicide and a variety of risky behaviors” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).  “Recent research shows that while the US child mortality rate for children ages 1 to 14 has decreased by 9% since 2000, it has increased by 15% among AI/AN children (National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association)” and “Alcoholism mortality rates are 514% higher than the general population” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).

NICWA appears somewhat confused in its rendering of the deaths of the children. While on the one hand reporting in 2014 that “Available data collected by state child welfare systems shows that AI/AN child fatalities occur at the same rate as the national average, with 2.2 AI/AN child fatalities reported per 100,000 AI/AN children in the population (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2013)” (NICWA 2015).  NICWA also stated that same year that “unique to AI/AN families are incredibly high rates of deaths by accidental injury. These types of deaths, which include car and pedestrian accidents, firearm accidents, drowning, fires, and suicide/homicide, account for 75% of all deaths of AI/AN children (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2003, p.1). Combined, the rate of death due to injury for AI/AN children is twice the national rate at 48.4 versus 24.0 per 100,000 (CDC, 2003, p. 2). Compared to Caucasian and African American/Black children, AI/AN children have the highest injury-death rates for motor vehicle crashes and pedestrian events as well as suicides (CDC, 2003, p. 3)” (NICWA 2015). While they were using two different sources – which were ten years apart – for their data, they reported on all of it in the same year: 2015.

Having said that, NICWA then discredits its own statement that most fatalities are due to accident rather than abuse or neglect, by saying “These figures must be considered alongside the data describing child fatalities and incidence of child maltreatment in AI/AN families. This data is in line with data showing that AI/AN families are more likely to have child welfare involvement due to neglect and suggests a unique risk factor specific to AI/AN child fatalities. Given the multitude of potential responders, differences in how entities may determine child fatalities, and limited framework in Indian Country for investigating child fatalities, questions arise as to whether some of these accidents may be related to child neglect as opposed to tragic accidents. It is with these realities in mind that solutions to identify, respond to, and prevent child abuse and neglect fatalities in AI/AN families and communities must be crafted (NICWA 2015, 5).

Further, NICWA then asserts the statistics are likely underreported, saying, “According to this data, 11 AI/AN children died in 2012 due to child abuse and neglect (DHHS, 2013). This data reflects only those child fatalities that have been reported to state authorities. However, because incidents of child maltreatment that occur under a tribe’s exclusive jurisdiction and where tribal services are provided are not necessarily reported to the state and included in national data systems, this number is likely a slight underestimate (Earl, 2001, p. 8)” (NICWA 2015).

Lastly, some of NICWA’s testimony appears simply confused: “National statistics show that of the U.S. children who die due to maltreatment, 69.9% suffered from neglect and 44.3% suffered from physical abuse, either exclusively or in combination with another maltreatment type (DHHS, 2013). Thus, a much higher proportion of children who die due to child abuse and neglect have been subjected to physical abuse than children involved in the child welfare system generally (44.3% versus 18.3%). This data suggests that AI/AN children involved in the child welfare system who face higher rates of neglect than physical abuse may be at slightly less risk of death than their counterparts (NICWA 2015).

Other reporters can be just as confusing. Lonna Hunter, Project Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice, stated in hearing testimony, “The co-occurrence between domestic violence and child maltreatment…occurs between 50 and 70 percent. So, 50 percent to 70 percent of children who are in homes where they’re witnessing domestic violence, that is the rate of child maltreatment that they are experiencing” and “…we do not know those very specific statistics for Indian Country. The rate of violence against Indian and Alaska Native women by an intimate partner is upwards to 30 to 40 percent. And so, considering the rate of violence against American Indian/Alaska Native women, the high co-occurrence rate suggests that it’s critical that we study or at least look at the research on this issue in Indian Country” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 25).

Nevertheless Ms. Hunter again confirms the lack of reliable data as well as the issue of underreporting: “Data from the Wind River Reservation estimates that at least 66 percent of families have history of domestic violence and at least 20 percent have been sexually abused and those are low numbers. We have to remember that under reporting is largely in the population of Alaska Natives/American Indian families because there is just basically no research.” Ms. Hunter stated more, “The issue of co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment has been studied in mainstream since the late probably ’80s into the early ’90s; however, in Indian Country, we are only beginning to realize the magnitude of this issue. I would have liked to present the statistics on the studies of the co-occurrence in Indian Country for children witnessing domestic violence; however, there is little to no research on this issue.” Studies indicate that witnessing violence may be as harmful as suffering physical abuse oneself.

Despite these undisputed statistics, tribal leaders and their apologists argue Indian Country is the best and only place of healing and health for children of heritage, even arguing children who leave Indian Country are afflicted with a syndrome called “split-feather,” which could place them “at great risk of long-term psychological damage as an adult” (Locust 1998).

How do physically and sexually abused children respond when told their life of trauma is not only best for them, but that there are no alternatives?

Documented levels of suicide

“Subjects with a history of any type of maltreatment were 3 x more likely to become depressed or suicidal than those with normal treatment history” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 15). “According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 16 percent of students at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in 2001 reported having attempted suicide in the preceding 12 months” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). “Young Native Americans taking their own lives — more than three times the national average, and up to 10 times the average on some reservations” (Horwitz 2014).  The chorus concerning the epidemic of suicides goes continues: “Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death – 2.5 times the national rate – for AI/AN youth in the 15 to 24 age group (SAMHSA). In the US, between 1 in 9 and 1 in 5 AI/AN youth report attempting suicide each year (Suicide Prevention Resource Center)” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). “Indians have the highest child suicide rate in the nation, according to the CDC. The suicide rate for Indians 15-34 years old is 2.5 times higher than the national average. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for that age group” (Flatten 2015).

The office of the President reiterated the same information: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death—2.5 times the national rate—for Native youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group” (Executive Office of the President 2014, 5), while NICWA, that same year, shared a different rate, “Native teens experience the highest rates of suicide of any population in the U.S.—at least 3.5 times higher than the national average.11 (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014)

Some areas have declared states of emergency. “Suicide among Native American youth is 9 to 19 times as frequent as among other youths and rising. From Arizona to Alaska, tribes are declaring states of emergency and setting up crisis-intervention teams” (Woodward 2012). Two examples this year; “The Yurok Tribe has declared a state of emergency after seven young tribal members took their own lives over an 18-month span” (Greenson 2016). “Since September, 101 people in the Attawapiskat First Nation, a remote aboriginal community with about 2,000 residents, have attempted suicide” (Austen 2016).

“It feels like wartime,” said Diane Garreau, a child-welfare official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota. “I’ll see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.” So dire is the alarm that of 23 grants the U.S. federal government awarded nationally to prevent youth suicides in September 10 went to Native American tribes or organizations, with most of them receiving nearly $500,000 per year for three years” … “Our kids hurt so much, they have to shut down the pain,” said Garreau, who is Lakota. “Many have decided they won’t live that long anyway, which in their minds excuses self-destructive behavior, like drinking—or suicide”  (Woodward 2012).

“…After a cluster of suicides in 2001, the White Mountain Apache Tribe wanted to develop a prevention program. It mandated reporting of all suicides and attempts on their Arizona reservation, discovering that between 2001 and 2006, their youth ended their lives at 13 times the national rate.” …” Because suicide is so common in some Native communities, it’s become an acceptable solution for times when burdens build up, said Alex Crosby, medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s injury-prevention center:” “…In some communities, suicide has become so ordinary that boys in particular may dare each other to try it, said Ira Vandever, a Ramah Navajo chef in western New Mexico  (Woodward 2012).

Further, “Children from violent homes learn it’s ok to hurt the ones you care about: whoever has the most power gets to win, and that abuse and violence are acceptable techniques for use in conflict resolution. The effects of being raised in these settings may be visible right away or may lay dormant and resurface later in life manifesting itself as depression, eating disorders, inability to develop close-trusting relationships, addictive behaviors and controlling and/or violent behavior. Many children, adolescents and young adults who were witness to or subjected to abuse in their homes attempted suicide (Hallie Bongar White 2014).

Despite all this, NICWA claimed that “In Indian Country children are considered sacred beings—gifts from the Creator and carriers of the tribe’s future” (NICWA 2015, 2). 

Documented levels of denial

While abuse and neglect are the most likely cause of the engulfing despair, most reporters of the abuse blame ‘historical trauma’ and the federal and state government for what is happening to the children.  NICWA maintains there are at least four “distinct forms of trauma” that have been identified in Indian Country, “which can be experienced in a single event, as a prolonged experience, through interpersonal violence, from a historical event, or via a personal event that occurs over time through several generations” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014).

  • Cultural Trauma
  • Historical Trauma
  • Intergenerational Trauma
  • Current Trauma

According to the CNAY, “As a result of historical trauma, chronically underfunded federal programs, and broken promises on the part of the US government, American Indians and Alaska Natives experience many health, educational and economic disparities compared to the general population (Center for Native American Youth 2011) (2014).

“We need vital resources that allow us to be at the forefront, special demonstration funding that addresses the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment,” said Ms. Hunter.  Requests for money are repeated in most if not all hearing testimony, along with the references to historical trauma.  (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 35).  Lonna Hunter stated in testimony to the Justice Department, “The issues of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and child maltreatment must be addressed through understanding of the complexity of historical and intergenerational trauma” and “This is about a political relationship to the United States government. And when we see these astronomical numbers, we understand the full extent of the historical trauma and realize the full-frontal crisis we find ourselves in Indian Country with our women and children. It is imperative to understand the context of historical colonization, battering, dominance, and oppression in our villages, communities, and tribal nations in Indian Country. It is imperative because it removes the lens of victim blaming” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 30).

The media parrots this line of reason as well, “Native youngsters are particularly affected by community-wide grief stemming from the loss of land, language and more, researchers reported in 2011. As many as 20 percent of adolescents said they thought daily about certain sorrows—even more frequently than adults in some cases…” (Woodward 2012).

However, according to the Indian Health Service TeleBehavior Health Center at the University of Oklahoma, “Factors that Affect Children’s Responses to Violence” include a child’s immediacy to the violence; age of child at time of exposure; availability of adults to emotionally protect the child; the child’s disposition; and the severity and continual nature of the violence” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 17).  Historical trauma isn’t included in the list.

The reality, of course, is that all people groups throughout history have experienced severe trauma. Some have passed that trauma on to the next generation, others have not. Nevertheless, the premise of inevitability that all persons of Native American heritage suffer from historical, cultural, and intergenerational trauma has been disproved by the much higher percentage of persons of Native American heritage who are not experiencing violence, addiction, health, educational or economic issues. Many of those who appear not to have not been experiencing trauma – (but not all) – live outside of Indian Country and have never been connected to the reservation system.

Documented levels of Alcoholism

The more likely reasons for the high incidence of violence, child sexual abuse, and child maltreatment within Indian Country revolves around the high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse found on many reservations, which has been well documented in numerous studies over the years. A 1999 survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA), found “76% of social welfare professionals cited substance abuse as one of the top three causes for the rise of child abuse and neglect since 1986” (Roe Bubar 2007, 13 (9)). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found “…meth-addicted parents (fathers more frequently than mothers) are more likely to abuse their children when using the drug, while neglecting them as the high wears off (Hogan, Myers & Elswick, 2006; [HHS], 2003). As noted by NCASA (1999), “the powerful lure of this addiction competes with parents’ bonds to their children and can diminish their ability to meet the demands of child welfare officials and to regain their children despite an abiding love for them” (Roe Bubar 2007, 17).

In 2003 it was noted, “Mortality rate associated with alcoholism is nearly four times that of other races. Alcohol contributes to four of the top 10 leading causes of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives, including accidents, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, suicides, and homicides. The majority of accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, are alcohol related” (NW Frontier ATTC 2003).

In 2004, “tribal service providers and law enforcement agencies began reporting that parents were selling their furniture, personal belongings, family heirlooms and regalia, cars, homes, and in some instances prostituting their children in order to obtain cash to continue their addiction to methamphetamines (meth). Criminal Justice Act grantees also were reporting dramatic increases in interpersonal violence, crime, and death, in which meth was a contributing factor (D. Payne, personal communication, April 10, 2006). However, Indian country lacks both a macro and micro study of child abuse and meth use. Furthermore, a systematic examination into the impact of the meth crisis on emergency services, social services, law enforcement, and schools has not taken place on a tribal basis, much less on a pan-tribal level. (Roe Bubar 2007, 7) Note: this list of methods to raise money for drugs included prostituting one’s own children, and again mentions the lack of solid data.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated in 2005 that “methamphetamine use had grown to 1.7 percent in the Native population” (McSwain, 2006). “According to Trends in Indian Health, produced by the Indian Health Service in 2000-2001, American Indian and Alaska Native populations have seen a 164% increase in the number of drug-related deaths from 3.9% in 1979-1981 to 10.3% 1998. The North Dakota Drug Threat Assessment of 2002 concluded that meth use and distribution was a problem in all reservations within the state, including Turtle Mountain, Standing Rock Nation, Fort Berthold, Spirit Lake Nation, and Lake Traverse (U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center [NDIC], 2002). It is believed that most of these reservations have been targeted by Mexican drug traffickers who bring the drugs in wholesale from California or Mexico and then use Native distributors for both on and off reservation trafficking (NDIC, 2002)” (Roe Bubar 2007).

“According to newspaper accounts…U.S. and tribal law enforcement agencies have witnessed a large increase in violent crimes stemming from meth use. Furthermore, there have been reports of tribal elders and family members being involved with meth distribution. … According to media reports coming out of the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, the tribal community had been targeted by Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to create a market for meth that dwarfs the demand for alcohol and marijuana. As a result, …social services agencies have seen a large increase in child neglect cases. The addition of meth-exposed children to an already strained network of social services in tribal communities almost guarantees additional complications in educational, social, and medical services on the reservation. Requests through the Indian Health Service (IHS) for drug rehabilitation services for meth addicts increased from 137 in 1997 to 4,946 in 2004. … (Doney, 2006; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights [USCCR], 2003)” (Roe Bubar 2007, 15-17).

“Professionals working in these tribal communities report increases in the incidence of child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and sexual assault as a result of meth. They also expressed an awareness of increases in child abuse allegations and out-of-home placements that involved a meth-related investigation. Furthermore, these professionals believe that meth involvement increases the difficulty of family reunification. In addition, there are serious concerns regarding the impact of methamphetamines on children, including attempted or completed suicides, meth-impacted births, and exposure to chemicals within the home environment. Many of the perceptions provided by tribal professionals in this survey are supported by recent data gathered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Justice Services from 96 Indian country law enforcement agencies that suggests meth is the greatest threat in their communities. These law enforcement agencies also identified increases in domestic violence, assaults, burglaries, and child abuse and neglect cases with the increased use of meth” (Roe Bubar 2007, 10).

The children are also mimicking their parents. In an early study, “Wallace and Bachman (1991) found that almost half of Native American youth under the age of 17 drank alcohol or smoked marijuana, with a higher substance abuse rate for boys than for girls” (Roe Bubar 2007). “16% of AI/AN youth ages 12 and older report substance dependence or abuse” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014).

“Native youth also face substance abuse problems, and some have co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. In 2013, among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was higher among American Indians/Alaska Natives than any other population group. That same year, an estimated 38.7 percent of Native adolescents aged 12 to 17 years had a lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use. Compared with the national average for adolescents aged 12 to 17, Native adolescents had the highest rates of lifetime tobacco product use, marijuana use, nonmedical use of pain relievers, and nonmedical use of prescription-type psychotherapeutics. From 2003-2011, American Indian/Alaska Native were more likely to need alcohol or illicit drug use treatment than persons of other groups by age, gender, poverty level, and rural/urban residence. In 2012, almost 69 percent of Native youth ages 15 to 24 who were admitted to a substance abuse treatment facility reported alcohol as a substance of abuse compared to 45 percent for non-AI/AN admissions. Among other issues, underage drinking increases the risk of suicide and homicide, physical and sexual assault, using and misusing other drugs, and is a risk factor for heavy drinking later in life (Executive Office of the President 2014, 25-26).

Further, “Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among AI/AN population indicate some of the highest rates” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 14). It has been suggested that the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ in reference to Indian Country is the reality that a high percentage of those remaining on the reservation suffer from alcohol related birth defects, which has resulted in progressive generations of fetal alcohol adults raising fetal alcohol children.

Documented levels of mental and physiological health issues

Others have pointed to the long-term effects of repeated exposure to violence. “… No matter what you do, if that child can’t be at that basic level feeling safe, feeling secure, being fed, that kind of a thing, how are they going to be at a higher level? (Honolulu, Hawaii)” (NIEA 2006, 22-23).

“Trauma at a young age often leads to higher rates of behavioral health disorders in adolescence. [While] research shows there is little comprehensive data on rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for AI/AN youth… a study of Native American sixth graders from one reservation found that 75% had clinically significant levels of PTSD” and “Researchers have reported a 14% prevalence rate of Major Depressive Disorder among AI/AN adolescents” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014). “Indian children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and triple the rate of the general population” (Flatten 2015).

“I would venture to say over 80 percent of our children are traumatized at an early age; and so, therefore, their ability to learn and comprehend is affected very severely. How do we link that? How do we link the early childhood trauma? Where is the research and where do we find the research dollars to make that link; and, in that, what are the methods that can help our children transcend that and move into a place where they can get beyond that and they’re able to learn? (Green Bay, WI)” (NIEA 2006, 23).

Additional funds to prove the connection between the trauma children experience on many reservations and their subsequent inability to learn are not necessary. A multitude of studies have already proven the links. It is time now to act. “This whole No Child Left Behind or other education endeavors deals with academics and learning; but, as long as we don’t address the other issue of hurt children and hurt children cannot learn — we all know that don’t we? Hurt children cannot comprehend. We know that. And, most importantly, children in unhealthy homes, it affects their attendance, and it does contribute to their dropout. Early childhood trauma is also the precursor to long-term alcohol and substance abuse. The research is connecting all that up (Green Bay, WI)” (NIEA 2006, 23).

Indian children respond to the impact of violence exactly as children from every heritage do. According to the HIS center at the University of Oklahoma, “The brains of traumatized children develop as if the entire world is chaotic, unpredictable, violent, frightening, and devoid of nurturance…Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 23).

As a society, we need to stop being afraid and do what needs to be done to factually help affected children and stop the cycle.

“The combination of repeated childhood trauma and the absence of parental nurture, support and protection can result in the development of multiple psychiatric and neuropsychiatric disorders. … four categories of symptoms:

(1) trauma-related neurological symptoms,

(2) trauma-related psychological symptoms,

(3) developmental difficulties brought on by poor parenting, and

(4) other associated difficulties.

“Each of these categories or clusters of symptoms cause children considerable emotional distress and impair their ability to function, and the distress and dysfunction are even more severe when they are combined. Although these four sets of difficulties are hard to “cure,” appropriate mental health treatment can act as a buffer against them and their effects, especially when such treatment is initiated during childhood (Cicchetti and Toth, 1995; Toth and Cicchetti, 1993). In the absence of treatment, however, trauma-related difficulties and their effects tend to persist into adolescence and adulthood and become difficult to reverse (Perry et al., 1995; Schore, 2001). (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 4-5)

“Studies have shown that, when children are repeatedly exposed to trauma, the amygdala — the area of the brain known to activate the physiological stress response — overdevelops. This overdevelopment increases the fear and anxiety these children experience and causes them to be hyperresponsive to frightening situations in both their physiology and their observable behavior (Pollak, 2008; Shin, Rauch, and Pitman, 2006). At the same time, the development of the hippocampus — the area of the brain known to turn off the stress response — is inhibited, decreasing its capacity to control the response (Bremner et al., 2003) … Trauma-related neurological and psychological difficulties interact so as to exacerbate each other”  (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 5-6).

“…it is estimated that 35 percent of children exposed to domestic violence will develop trauma-related difficulties (Moretti et al., 2006). …Similarly, it is estimated that between 42 percent and 90 percent of child victims of sexual abuse will develop trauma-related difficulties (De Bellis, Spratt, and Hooper, 2011). …statistics related to both these issues are thought to be underestimates (Leventhal, 1998; Wilt and Olson, 1996). It is therefore likely that the actual prevalence of PTSD stemming from both childhood sexual abuse and exposure to domestic violence is greater than stated above. More difficult to estimate is the number of children repeatedly exposed to or even directly threatened by various forms of neighborhood violence”  (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 9).

Some believe these issues result “in our kids not knowing who they are and emulating other races by trying to be people that they are not. And they’re doing this because they lack a basic knowledge of who they are and where they come from. And we, as Dacotah people, we are spiritual people. We have a belief in Wakan Tanka, and we know that prayer is a daily part of life” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 56).

Application of the Indian Child Welfare Act

All these statistics have been known, thoroughly documented, and reported by supporters of the Indian Child Welfare Act for many years. Yet, while admitting there aren’t enough safe, healthy foster homes on all reservations, many of these same reporters vehemently oppose the use of foster homes outside of Indian Country. “About 2 percent of US children are American Indian/Alaska Native, but AI/ANs represent 8.4 percent of the children in foster care. (NICWA, & Kids Are Waiting, 2007)” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). “The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) reports that AI/AN children are overrepresented in foster care – at more than 2.1 times the general population – and 2 to 4 times the expected level are awaiting adoption” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).

Further, “[n]on-binding guidelines published by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in February 2015, stated that courts should not consider the best interests of the child in determining foster care or adoptive placements. Placement in an Indian home is presumed to be in the child’s best interests” (Flatten 2015). In June 2016, the federal government took it a step further and published the guidelines in the federal register as now mandated rules for all courts. Every child in the nation who presents to a court in need of care now must be vetted for tribal heritage, and if heritage is found, the relevant tribal government must be notified and given the option to intervene and take over jurisdiction of the child. These new rules have been written to prevent children and families from ducking the ICWA and avoiding tribal jurisdiction. “The law forbids judges from blocking placement in an Indian home based on poverty, substance abuse, or “nonconforming social behavior” in a particularly Indian community or family, according to the BIA guidelines. That can force children with even a slight Indian heritage into environments where poverty, crime, abuse, and suicides are rampant” (Flatten 2015).

One organization even called it a “positive’ event when children are unable to find a permanent, loving home, with stable adults they can call ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ From the ICCTC: “AI/AN children currently appear less likely to be adopted compared to White children. This positive finding, reported by CWLA (1999), may be due to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA)” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005).

“The ICWA was enacted to stem the outflow of Indian children from their tribal communities and to statutorily recognize tribal authority over child placement decisions. The Act is based on the fundamental assumption that it is in the Indian child’s best interest that its relationship to the tribe be protected.” The ICWA Commission’s hearings, which were held on the reservations throughout the State and in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, were ‘the most in-depth assessment of ICWA compliance ever undertaken in South Dakota.’ Testimony from all the Indian communities reported a high rate of removal of Indian children from their families on the reservations. The primary reasons for the removal of Indian children were two-fold: a high rate of alcohol and drug abuse and …abuse and neglect. In either situation, the predominant reason for the removal was children being at risk of abuse and neglect and could not be maintained safely in their homes. Removing a child from his or her home requires placement in foster care or a temporary custody arrangement with a member of the family. However, as the study revealed, when placement with extended family is not an option, neither the State nor the tribes have a sufficient number of qualified foster homes available to place Indian children in what often becomes a long-term custody arrangement”(Kunesh 2007, 28).

Many tribal entities also claim only tribal governments and tribal organizations can help children who have any amount of tribal heritage.  Says a representative of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “To prevent child abuse and neglect in Indian Country and the senseless deaths that it sometimes produces, the Commission must turn to those who have the most knowledge of the needs of these children: national Indian child welfare experts, tribes, and AI/AN practitioners. These experts can best help the Commission understand challenges to AI/AN children’s safety and work with the Commission to formulate solutions that support healthy, safe children and families (NICWA 2015, 2).

The argument is further buffered in most if not all hearings and testimony by the mention of treaties and land, although no treaty gives any tribal government the right of jurisdiction over the children of non-Indian families who are not connected to the reservation system, let alone parents and tribal members who have deliberately taken their families and left Indian Country. “AI/AN nations have always had systems of government that addressed internal conflict and provided for the needs of their families. Historically, these systems were informal, unwritten, and based upon a holistic philosophy which sought to encourage a balanced way of life. These governing systems are acknowledged in the U.S. Constitution, hundreds of treaties, and some of the earliest Supreme Court cases. Over the course of time, a fundamental contract between AI/AN nations and the federal government has been created. AI/AN nations ceded millions of acres of land and enabled the U.S. to expand its territory, and in return, AI/AN nations were given a guarantee that their continued existence and inherent right to self-government will be protected. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of our history, this relationship was not honored by the federal government, which actively worked to extinguish tribal self-governance and in some cases tribal people” (NICWA 2015, 2).

“Sandy White Hawk, a woman of Sioux heritage who was adopted by a non-tribal family in the 1950s, voiced a commonly accepted belief when she said, “We know that the children who grow up outside of their culture suffer greatly… Non-native homes cannot give an adopted Indian child their culture” (Kaplan 2015).

The term ‘Split-feather syndrome’ came into parlance in the late 90’s with a pilot study under the direction of Carol Locust, a training director at the Native American Research and Training Center at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. According to Locust, “The pilot study conducted by this investigator indicated that every Indian child placed in a non-Indian home for either foster care or adoption is placed at great risk of long-term psychological damage as an adult” (Locust 1998).

Locust is said to have identified “unique factors of Indian children placed in non-Indian homes that created damaging effects in these children’s lives.” The Minnesota Department of Human Services noted “an astonishing 19 out of 20 Native adult adoptees showed signs of “split feather syndrome” during Locust’s 1998 study (DHS 2005).

“Unfortunately,” according to Bonnie Cleaveland, PhD ABPP, “the study was implemented so poorly that we cannot draw conclusions from it.” Only twenty Native American adoptees – total – were interviewed. Further, according to Cleaveland, “Locust asserts that out of culture removal causes substance abuse and psychiatric problems. However, she uses no control group. She doesn’t acknowledge the high rates of trauma, psychiatric and substance abuse among AI/AN people who remain in their culture and among the population of foster children. These high rates of psychosocial problems could easily account for all of the symptoms Locust found in her subjects. (Cleaveland 2015) Cleaveland concluded, “Sadly, because many judges and attorneys, and even some caseworkers and other professionals, are not familiar with the research, results that may be very wrong are leading to the wrong outcomes for children” (Cleaveland 2015).


The data is clear and agreed upon by reporters across the board. Emotional and physical dangers for children are much greater within Indian Country than they are without.

Some of the reports given by tribal entities and organizations have phrased the data to make it appear that these dangers are connected to heritage. But many more children of Indian heritage live outside of Indian Country than live within, and many of these children and their families, while they may report elements of their heritage to the U.S. census, are not eligible for federal Indian benefits, do not participate or have any connection with Indian Country, and are not countable in the statistics gathered by Indian Health Services or other reporters of tribal health and welfare statistics.  They do not use Indian Health Services or programs offered by tribal governments, are not available to be counted, and cannot be included in many of the studies concerning youth of Indian heritage.

The dangers being reported pertain much more to children within Indian Country, under the auspices of tribal governments, the federal Administration of Children and Families, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other federal ‘help’ agencies, than they do to children in the mainstream who are unconnected to Indian Country.

The documentation of children being physically abused, sexually abused, and even dying at an extremely high rate within Indian Country is solid and has been so for at least two decades. Despite many hearings, reports and billions of dollars, the situation appears to have only been getting worse. The theoretical implication of this data, which has been reported as true by tribal government entities and their supporters, is that children who are taken from homes known and proven to be safe, stable, and emotionally and physically healthy outside of Indian Country, and placed into a home within Indian Country, are more likely to be placed into situations less safe, stable, and emotionally and physically healthy than the home they have been taken from.

Further, these theoretical implications should be obvious to tribal and federal governments as well as organizations servicing Indian Country, as they are the ones reporting the data.

Therefore, children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act – meaning children who a tribal government has deemed to be members and who have been brought before a judge for a custody hearing, regardless of whether they and their families have been connected to Indian Country – are being consciously placed into potentially dangerous living situations by tribal, state, and/or federal government officials who know – or should have known – the potential for harm.

Unfortunately, ICWA statistics – including how many children are affected by the ICWA every year, what percentage of those affected were taken from long term homes where they felt safe and loved – then placed into tribal foster homes, what percentage had never lived within Indian Country or been acquainted with the culture, and what the long-term emotional and physical health outcomes for the children have been – were not mentioned in any of the reports or studies examined in this review and don’t appear to exist.

Nevertheless, a concerned community does not wait for additional studies to act on an obvious and immediately known danger.  We don’t wait for a study to rush a child out of a burning building. When a child is bleeding to death, we know to immediately put pressure on the wound and get the child to a hospital. Unwillingness to deal effectively with the immediate needs of children suffering extreme physical or sexual abuse from their extended family or neighborhood casts doubt on tribal and federal government assertions that the best interest of the children is of paramount importance.

The real racism – is the attitude that the documented and immediate needs of certain children of a particular heritage can wait a few more years so as to not interfere with the desires and demands of political leadership.  While claiming to be “raising the standard” for children of heritage by allowing them to stay in a documented dangerous environment, or to return to a dangerous family setting prematurely, or to take them from an environment known to be safe and deliberately place them in danger – federal and tribal officials have been in fact lowering the standard to the point of cruel negligence. Many children of tribal heritage are, in fact, not being given protection equal to what other children are legally mandated to receive. Our federal government has reduced our children to the status of a mere “resource,’ and has chosen to please political leaders rather than save children’s lives.

When one boils down the entirety of federal Indian policy – just how does our federal government view tribal members?  Indeed, why are children treated as financial assets, and adults treated as children?


“…there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe…”

Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978



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