Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Today, we're going to begin with a story from the state of Minnesota. Before we get there, I want to take you back to the 19th century. In 1819, President James Monroe and the US Congress passed the Indian Civilization Act. It established resources and support for Christian missionaries to "improve the habits and conditions of Indians".
The Act paved the way for indigenous children to be forcibly kidnapped from their families, held against their will in government-sponsored schools, and emotionally and physically brutalized in an attempt to rid these children of their knowledge, of their language, culture, and communities. The last of the boarding schools initiated by this Act closed only in 1978.
This is not distant history, it's hardly even the past. I was five years old at the time, a lot of you were alive too when this was happening. Last year, I spoke with journalist Rebecca Nagle about her podcast, This Land. She told me more about that extensive history of the US government forcibly separating the families of native people.
Rebecca Nagle: In the late 1800s, the United States started rounding up native children and forcing them to go to boarding schools, which were really assimilation camps. The explicit goal of those schools was to separate native children from their tribes and from their culture so that, eventually, there would no longer be native people. The same goal was part of the Indian adoption project. The idea being just that native children were simply better off in white homes, and I would argue that it's still happening today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That it's still happening today is one conclusion readers might draw from Jessica Washington's reporting with The Fuller Project. Jessica spent eight months speaking with native families, lawyers, and other experts to understand why Minnesota has a disproportionately high rate of indigenous children in the child welfare system.
The foster care system, it's supposed to provide temporary housing assistance to children whose families may be in a time of crisis. While it's a system that's often overburdened and under-resourced, something more troubling seems to be happening in Minnesota. Where indigenous children are overrepresented in the foster system at a rate of 15 times their presence in the population.
Jessica Washington spent months talking with tribal members in Minnesota. I sat down to talk with Jessica about what she learned.
Jessica Washington: Just to give some data, less than 2% of children in Minnesota identify as American Indian, and yet 26% of children in the foster care system are American Indian. You're seeing really, really large disparities in the system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jessica, I want to stop right there and just pause on that for a moment so that people can absorb that number. You're saying fewer than 2% in the general population, but, basically, one in four children in foster care is indigenous?
Jessica Washington: Yes, and when you break it down to the county level, it can be even more extreme. I looked at Beltrami County, which is a pretty small county and about 20% of the population there identify as American Indian, and yet 88% of kids in foster care, in the out-of-home placement system there are American Indian.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's stunning. I can't, just off the top of my head, think of another thing that we would presume would be more evenly distributed that is more outsized disparity. Go ahead and continue more on what you learned in talking with families and community about these numbers.
Jessica Washington: The big thing that in talking to these women that came across very strongly was just the sense of living in fear. I spoke to one mother who, she has a stable job, she has suffered from issues with addiction previously but has been clean for years and sober and yet she still has this nightmare of thinking about child protective service workers knocking on her door. Every time she needs to get help for her daughter, every time she wants to get her mental health access, she worries, "Well, are they going to come for me this time?"
I think there's a lot of fear in this system that these mothers spoke to me about. I also spoke to someone at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, which is a center that works to reunite native families. One thing the executive director told me is that she's even had a girl who was 18-years-old and just had a child who was so concerned that she might be involved in the system just because of the huge numbers she sees in her community of children being taken away, that she was so proactive and going to them for assistance to figure out how to prevent that from happening to her even though there wasn't even a case against her.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us a bit about the history of removing native children from their families?
Jessica Washington: In about the mid-1800s, the United States started instituting a policy of boarding schools. These were schools where native children were oftentimes forcibly or coerced into going to these schools where their culture was taken from them, their language was taken from them and the intent was to strip the tribes of the children in their community and take away those cultural and heritage ties. Generations of children ended up in these schools.
There was also rampant abuse. Children were starved and they were beaten, and this happened throughout the United States, and it has a particular history in Minnesota. The last boarding school didn't close until 1978 in the United States. We're talking about generations of families living under this fear.
One of the mothers I spoke to in the story, her own mother was in the boarding school system and she could really directly tie that system of fear of family separation to her own childhood and what happened to her. She inevitably ended up in the foster care system as a child and her own children ended up in the foster care system for a time. There's definitely a generational tie that the mother spoke to me about and that many of the people I spoke to and the community in Minnesota really saw very clearly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If I'm thinking like a social scientist and I see a disparity of this size and this, again, is an enormous one, I feel like I could have two alternate hypotheses. One might say the factors that get children removed from dangerous family situations simply are more prevalent in indigenous communities and maybe there's a lot of reasons for that, but what we see here is, for example, greater substance abuse or neglect or whatever the issues are. Perhaps they're just, as hard this might be, there's so much more of it going on here that's why we see the disparity.
The other hypothesis might say, well, the rates are similar or maybe slightly elevated, but part of what's happening here is that decision-makers when they see, for example, substance abuse in a middle-income white household, they still think those are good parents who simply need help, but when they see substance abuse in an indigenous family, they think we got to go get those kids and separate that family. Jessica, which one is it, or to what extent are both of these contributing more of the problems versus problematic decision making?
Jessica Washington: One thing that came up in my reporting time and time again was what were the actual reasons children were ending up in the system? When I spoke to the executive director of the ICWA Law Center, the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, she told me that the number one reason parents came through her door was because of poverty. This came up time and time again with the mothers I was speaking to, being unhoused was a reason to remove children. I think poverty is really at the root of this. Native Americans in the United States and in Minnesota, in particular, are much more likely to experience poverty.
What I heard from the mothers I spoke to and from the experts who've been working on this issue for years is that these root cause is poverty and some of these other issues like trauma are being addressed through removals instead of being addressed through helping with resources. That was something that came up time and time again.
Something else that came up in speaking to the women I interviewed for this story was really a focus on the cultural mismatch in terms of who is making these decisions and who is being impacted. Statistically, 0% of social workers in Minnesota as of 2020 identified as native American, and yet, as I've said earlier, 26% of children in the foster care system are American Indian, so there's a real mismatch.
Also, 92% of social workers in the state identify as white. I spoke to one expert on the foster care system and on native American issues. One thing that she mentioned was that it's really hard to have social workers who maybe all come from a certain class background and are majority white judging the cultural practices of native parents and also judging the practices of parents living in poverty. That was something she really emphasized to me, this mismatch of how can you understand what we're going through if you've never experienced it? I think that's definitely something that came up in this reporting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there reason to believe that poverty alone constitutes an unsafe environment for children?
Jessica Washington: Yes. In speaking to the mothers, a lot of them did experience poverty. They did need help. That was definitely something that they all mentioned to me, that they needed resources to better assist their children, to make sure their children were safe and fed and clothed, but they didn't feel that this constituted harm to their children. They felt like they wanted someone to reach out-- the state or someone else to help them with those resources. At no point did they explain to me that this was a danger to their children just because they were experiencing poverty or just because they were experiencing maybe other downstream impacts of poverty.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if you have sort of down where the goats can get them examples here? Is this about seeing that, for example, two children are sharing a bed? I know that sometimes child welfare systems will be very anxious about the idea either that multiple children share a single sleeping surface or that maybe kids are sleeping on a air mattress rather than in a full bed. I'm just wondering what some of those anxieties are in practice?
Jessica Washington: That came up actually multiple times in my reporting, this idea of family members living in close quarters. That might be multiple generations under one householder, or as you mentioned, children sharing a bed or sharing a room. What I heard from those who'd been involved in the child welfare system for years was that that definitely was used as reasons to remove children and remove native children.
Part of that is related to poverty and part of that can also be cultural ignorance. That's something that they mentioned multiple times that in a lot of native communities, and obviously, there are so many tribes in the United States with all types of different practices, but in Minnesota and a lot of native communities, there's a sense of extended family that is much closer than maybe a lot of social service workers think of as the family unit.
Those families may live in multi-generational homes and that can be really, really normal and often a part of a very safe cultural family practice. Culture also came up when I was speaking to an attorney at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, who mentioned that one of her clients as a part of her cultural practice was speaking with her dead mother. That was a part of her cultural practice, similar to praying, and a social service worker assumed that she was having a mental breakdown and used that against her in a child welfare case, and somehow those things can be misinterpreted if you're not familiar with other cultures. That was definitely something that came up.
Teresa Nord: My name is Teresa Nord. My spirit name is Binigiwong Nibikwe Indignicaz. I am a descendant of the Navajo and Hopi Nation, and I am a proud mom of two little girls.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Teresa Nord is one of the women who spoke with Jessica Washington of The Fuller Project about the Minnesota child welfare system. As an indigenous mother in the state, she has clear ideas of how she would like to see the system change.
Teresa Nord: Prevention services. If I had been provided services through the school on how to get into treatment, caring for my child while in those programming, things like that, it could have made a big difference for me. Unfortunately, in the state of Minnesota where it's deemed the treatment state, there are very, very, very little services for moms who have their children in their care, and there's not enough housing, so then you see kids going into the foster care because their parents are homeless.
There's so many layers to the child welfare system that need to be changed. I feel like there's conversations that are being had, but not much action is being done. A just system to me would be prevention and family preservation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, let's get back to my interview with Jessica Washington. I know that the foster care system can be necessary and useful for some families and some children during certain parts of their lives. I asked Jessica what should the system be doing, ideally, and why some of this family separation is not meeting those goals?
Jessica Washington: In my reporting, I did come across many people who were focused on reform and who tried to really make the system better. For example, I spoke to Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig, and she was the first native woman to sit on a state supreme court. She was also involved in Minneapolis's in Hennepin County, which is where Minneapolis is, in their child welfare system and put in place several reforms.
For example, they put in place a special ICWA court and social worker unit to try and make the system better. Unfortunately, a lot of these reforms didn't move the needle in terms of disparities, which is something that she would readily admit. I do think that there are some reforms that I came across in my reporting, at least looking at the data, that have had some initial success, and those reforms have really been very focused on resources, providing resources to families who are struggling.
An example of that is the American Indian Families Grant program, and this is a pilot program that gives grants to tribes and then distributes those grants down to families who've had involvement or potential involvement in child protective services. The initial data from that does show that giving these grants to these families, helping them with resources has prevented many of them from having their children removed. We still don't have a lot of data yet to really show if that'll bear out on a larger population level, but the initial data does show some success.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is success defined as family reunification? Is it defined as a change in educational accomplishment for the young people themselves? I'm wondering, how do we even think about what constitutes success?
Jessica Washington: That's a great question. From the women I spoke to, success for them was very focused on the happiness of their children and also keeping the family unit together. Obviously, I think some of these women would argue that there are cases in which children need to be removed. That's definitely not something that they would argue with, but they do see success really as making sure that the children are healthy and happy, and able to stay with their parents and with their mothers to the extent possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is this a Minnesota-only problem?
Jessica Washington: It's definitely not a Minnesota-only problem, native children are overrepresented in the foster care at roughly 2.6 times their percentage in the overall population. That's a lot lower than in Minnesota. The disparities are, obviously, nationwide, not as bad, but there are certainly other states, certainly, states with higher populations of native children like South Dakota, Montana that have some of these similar issues. Although I will say Minnesota does remain somewhat of an outlier in terms of just the extremeness of the disparities here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you were in conversation with these mothers, with these families, I always believe that people know what their own solutions are, what they need. I think one of the things I'm most startled by is the ways that this family separation and then the fear of it keeps people from asking for the help that we want them to ask for to actually have the strongest family units.
If you know that you have substance abuse concerns, and you want to get help, but you're afraid that it's going to take your family, or if there's a domestic violence situation and you want assistance, but you're afraid to call for the fear of losing your children. I'm wondering if these mothers talk to you about what a fair and just system would look like for them?
Jessica Washington: Definitely. That was something I was really interested in speaking to them about. I agree with you that it's very important for journalists to ask people who are impacted not just what's impacting them, but also what solutions they're looking for. When I spoke to these mothers, they said, time and time again, that they wanted help with some of the issues they were dealing with, so addiction.
There was a lot of conversation when I spoke to these mothers about addiction services that keep families together, and there are programs that do that where families can get the help that they need, the family help that they need, the addiction service counseling that they need while also remaining with their children. That was something that definitely came up.
Help with housing also came up. Some of the mothers I spoke to dealt with housing insecurity and really struggled to get housing, which was also a requirement of getting their children back, even though they weren't necessarily provided the support they may have needed to accomplish that as easily as they could have. Housing support was definitely something that came up.
Addiction counseling came up. I think, more than that, they really mentioned just wanting to feel seen like human beings in the system, and not treated as their worst mistake I think was really something that they mentioned time and time again to me, not being branded with that, and being seen as the mothers that they are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jessica Washington is a reporter at The Fuller Project. Thank you for being here.
Jessica Washington: Thank you.
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