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More culturally appropriate services can keep children safe

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

African-American, Native American and other families of color are disproportionately represented in the child protection system.

Nikki Farago
Nikki Farago
As an indigenous woman, I see the Native community in Minnesota as my relatives, and take these disparities to heart. I am saddened and gravely concerned by the increasing number of children in recent years – 38,750 in 2018 – in our child protection system. Of those, Native American children were five times more likely and African-American/black children three times more likely to be the subjects of abuse and neglect assessments or investigations, based on preliminary data.

Unless we take definitive action to change, nothing will improve. We must address this issue directly, assertively and immediately, through leadership at the statewide level and in our communities.

Understanding our personal and cultural identity is critical to our well-being as individuals, especially as children. By providing culturally appropriate services to individual communities, we build trust and understanding. I have often seen a deep-seated lack of trust in government – rooted in generations of trauma. Culturally appropriate services help mitigate that trauma and lead to meaningful relationships.

Only with those strong relationships will Native American, African-American and other community members begin to trust that we value what they value, and take advantage of services when they face crises in their lives.

We’ve taken some important steps to move us in the right direction.

  • Since 2008, the White Earth Nation and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe have operated their own child protection systems. With intimate knowledge of traditional healing practices, the tribes incorporate culturally appropriate services, and emphasize prevention and early intervention for their children and families.
  • Following recommendations from the African American Child Welfare Disparities Advisory Committee in the early 2000s, we worked with counties to reduce the number of African-American children in the foster care system. However, recently those numbers are growing. We are committed to reinvigorating our work with counties and the community to reverse this trend. A proposed Child Welfare Training Academy would help ensure staff have the skills needed to serve families in a culturally competent way.

While this is encouraging, clearly it’s not enough. Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have laid out the next steps to build on this work.

  • We will invest in culturally appropriate services. The governor’s proposed budget, now under consideration by the Legislature, would expand the American Indian Child Welfare Initiative. The initiative supports tribal delivery of child abuse prevention, foster care, reunification and customary adoption services for Native American children and families. The governor’s budget would also establish an American Indian Family Early Intervention grant program for all tribes in Minnesota.
  • We will partner with communities to reduce disparities. Over the coming years, we will invest time and money in community organizations to erase systemic inequities in child care, child welfare, and economic assistance and employment supports, and increase access to those services.
  • We will work to reduce the number of children in our child welfare system. We will invest in initiatives to safely reduce foster care placements and address the disproportionate representation of children and families from marginalized communities in the child welfare system.

While Minnesota has some of the nation’s best overall outcomes for child well-being, we also have glaring disparities. We must work with communities affected by our system, listening to what they identify as problems and solutions. Only then will we be able to eradicate disparities in our child protection system.

Nikki Farago, assistant commissioner for children and family services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is responsible for services and policies that promote child care, child support, economic stability, child safety and permanency, and successful transitions for immigrants.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Patricia Enstad on 04/17/2019 - 06:58 pm.

    I am a licensed social worker with experiences in interfacing with DHS. DHS needs to address its punitive, bureaucratic nightmarish paperwork snafus that defund children, families and programs with no rational road to correction. There’s a good reason for the distrust.

  2. Submitted by lisa miller on 04/17/2019 - 07:34 pm.

    Many counties do contract with culturally specific agencies to provide services. Some have specific ICWA units. Many child protection cases are due to drug use/general neglect. Some rural counties do lack the resources. What also would help are more therapists of color as well as supports, especially mental health for foster families and children. Another need are drug treatment centers that are culturally specific where parents can have their children. Too often government reinvents the wheel without evidence based programming. Listening to those in the system as well as those on the front lines would greatly benefit policy makers as would realistic caseloads.

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