Opinion: State and private child welfare agencies took one in four Native children

The original opinion article was published on Indian Country Today on November 9, 2018.

By Gil Vigil

Forty years later, ICWA stands to protect our youth

As the executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, former governor of Tesuque Pueblo, and president of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, I am a stalwart advocate for Native children.

Forty years ago, the child welfare system reeled in the face of a public reality check.

It wasn’t so long ago.

A study published in 1977 by the Association of American Indian Affairs revealed that 25 to 35 percent of all Native children were removed from their homes by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. Eighty-five percent of the children removed were placed in non-Native homes, outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available.

With statistics exposing the grim consequences of centuries of forced assimilation of Native people into the dominant culture, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICWA is a long-standing federal law protecting the well-being of Native children by upholding family integrity and stability. The act recognizes the authority and responsibility of tribes to protect their member children and families.

This week, at the anniversary of the passage of ICWA, this issue feels fresh and raw.

Last month, in a federal district court in Northern Texas, a judge ruled on Brackeen v. Zinke and declared ICWA a “race-based law lacking a present-day articulation of its need.” This misinformed decision ignores the uphill battle for inherent rights that tribal governments, Native rights advocates, and Native families and children have faced since the act was passed. It ignores the dozens of states where collaborative tribal-state relationships are effectively ensuring the best interest of Indian children and keeping families together or reunifying whenever possible. Finally, it ignores the 18 national child advocacy organizations who have unequivocally declared ICWA the “gold standard” of child welfare policy, a law that would greatly benefit all children.

Throughout my life as a tribal child advocate, father, and grandfather, I have realized that we have much to learn from Native youth.

The Youth Commission of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s oldest, largest, and most representative national Indian organization, recently read a statement at a gathering of tribal leaders and tribal advocates in a response to the Brackeen v. Zinke decision. They said, “We, as youth leaders, know that our identity is who we are, is within our culture, and within the tribal community that raises us…. We are raised by tribal communities, because we learn from the community as a whole, not just from our family.”

We need to stand with youth as we unite to protect today’s and tomorrow’s generations of children. As the Youth Commission said in their closing statement: “ICWA is about Native youth and the communities and culture that sustain them. [Native children] should not be taken from their tribal community, because when they are a piece of our culture is lost.”

Gil Vigil is the former governor of Tesuque Pueblo, the executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, and president of National Indian Child Welfare Association.

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