Governor Walker recently decided to recognize the right of tribal governments to handle tribal children’s abuse and neglect cases. When I read this, part of me wanted to cheer. And part of me didn’t.
I spent a good part of my life involved in social services. I know the system as a social worker, a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) with the court system and as a court visitor investigating cases involving vulnerable adults. I lived in an Inupiat community for 28 years while doing this work.
I understand the feeling that outside social service agencies are way too fast to grab a child from an abusive or neglectful situation and place that child far away from their village, family and culture. I was sometimes the worker removing the child. But I can honestly say that every time I did, I saw no other option. When everyone in the home is so drunk or drugged they can’t even remember how many kids should be in the house, you can’t leave a child there. When there are no sober relatives who can take the child, you have to find a safe place.
I’ve watched these children receive all the love, food and safety they could ever want in their foster home. And I’ve heard them day after day cry for for their families. Because no matter how messed up your family is, it’s still your family. No matter how abusive, mean or pathological a parent gets, if you’re a child, that’s mom or dad and that’s all you know.
So taking these children from their homes, while providing for their physical safety, sometimes messes with their emotional and mental health only slightly less than being left in the abusive home. And this is certainly where tribes and Native village governments have every right to want to do things differently so that the cure does not result in a worse disease of cultural dislocation.
Think of your childhood. Imagine if one day an Inupiat person swooped into your (admittedly) dysfunctional family and took you out and placed you in an Inupiat home where dinner was seal meat and no one understood what your life had really been like before you arrived. Imagine being dropped off at a stranger’s home, not knowing the culture, possibly the language, the food or the routine. School is new. Family is new. Social workers and counselors are all over you. You did nothing wrong but it sure feels like you’re the one being punished.
This is what it’s like every time we remove a child from their cultural environment. Often, we have no choice. We can’t leave the child in a dangerous situation. But this doesn’t make it right in the child’s mind. And it isn’t a great leap to see that placing that child in another home in their same village and within their same culture is the gentlest way to handle an already traumatized kid.
Yet the little worry niggling at the back of my brain won’t be silenced. The worry that a tribal court will have trouble dealing fairly with families they know so well or are related to. Will they really remove the child from their cousin to keep the child safe? Will they really confront their uncle over his violence and make him understand that his child will not come home until he has sobered up and found a better way?
I don’t know the answer here. I know we have to do better than we’ve done by our Native children. I know their tribes and villages are much more apt to be able to handle the child with the least amount of trauma to the child. I hope they also have the strength to confront their friends and relatives about their behavior. I hope they have the strength and resolve to remove children who need to be removed from a home and not let the child return home on Monday because the weekend party is over until next weekend.
I think Governor Walker has taken a good first step towards improving the care provided to this very vulnerable part of our population. I hope the Tribal Councils and Village Governments take the next step to ensure that these children are protected and have a chance at growing up healthy. From what I learned in Utqiagvik over those 28 years, I know there are people in the villages capable of doing this. I hope they step forward to make sure it is done properly.