Indian Child Welfare Act, three interviews; part three

 This interview appeared in Indian Country Today in February 2012It was part of a year-long project supported by the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.

Danialle Rose, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is a licensed certified social worker and mental health professional with Capitol Area Counseling Service, central South Dakota’s state mental health center. Her job there as an in-home family therapist finds her working with children and families on the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe’s reservation. Rose’s background is both academic—she has a masters in social work from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on children’s mental health—and rooted in her community.

“Because I grew up on my reservation, I’ve been a part of the culture my whole life,” says Rose. “I’ve also participated in ceremonies that have strengthened my ability to understand and to do this type of work.”

As she drives home from her job each night, her route follows the course of the Missouri River. On a recent evening, Rose saw the full moon reflected in the water. “It was a beautiful picture,” she recalls, “and gave me a sense of serenity and hope.”

Rose spoke about her experiences with families who’ve been separated by child-welfare issues and are now reunited.

When children who were removed from the home then return to it—after months or even years away from family and community—how do they seem to you?

I frequently see anger in the children and resistance to joining activities. They’re mistrustful in public situations. Before they were taken and placed in foster care or a residential setting, they went to powwows but now have forgotten how to dance. I see oversensitivity to stress; they’ll melt down quickly if problems arise. I also observe hypervigilance and fear when an unknown Caucasian person arrives on the reservation. Even children who have never been removed from their families may be fearful when they see an unknown vehicle because they know about the possibility of being taken away. Returning youngsters can also have intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. If they were taken when they were at school, they may be afraid to go there again.

How do you handle this?

I use play therapy with young children and talking circles with older children. Of course, parents are always welcome to participate. I involve the youngsters in gatherings, such as potlucks, to develop a sense of community and show them who their relatives are. I make sure they have fun! If a child is acting out something that happened in the foster home, I find ways to modify this. For example, one child was repeatedly slapping others on the face, something it turned out had been done to her. I had her touch my face gently, and I touched her face gently and asked her if she liked that better than the feeling of slapping. She decided she did and is working on making softer interactions a habit.

What about new traumas that may occur after a child’s return, such as a serious car accident, perhaps involving relatives?

As these occur, we talk about them in the groups, so the children can understand the events and resolve their feelings about them. Naturally, such events also come up in therapy the children are involved in.

How does a child’s return affect the family?

Everyone has to develop routines and get to know each other again. This process affects not only the immediate family but the community at large. On a reservation, many can be aware of what’s going on with others. The situation is different from off-reservation communities, where neighbors may have no idea what’s going on in another home. Numerous people on a reservation will share in the trauma of a removal; then, when the child returns, they often worry that things won’t work out, that the parents won’t maintain whatever is necessary—sobriety, therapy and so on—to keep the family together. The reunited family then finds itself under a microscope, adding another type of stress.

Any advice for parents in this situation?

Reassure worried relatives and community members that you’re doing what’s required and that the children’s needs are being met. Try not to get defensive or angry about the concerns that are expressed. In reference to the children: If a child is having problems or acting out, we adults often say to them, “It’ll get better, go play.” Instead, try to ask questions, quietly posing follow-up questions until you get to the heart of what’s wrong.

What might an outside, non-Native evaluator misunderstand when looking at a Native family?

They may not realize the importance of grandparents in Native children’s lives. They can also make unwarranted judgments about the family’s values or economic situation. For example, they’ll arrive at the home and see discarded appliances in the yard and assume the parents don’t care or are destitute. Outsiders won’t realize that the underfunded tribal landfill picks up such items once a year. I am also aware of non-Native child-protective workers who still subscribe to the long-rejected notion that Native children are simply better off with strangers—that if the youngsters have a problem, they have to be separated from their families to get better.

How does Crow Creek Sioux Tribe deal with this?

The tribe’s mental health code says children must be treated in the least restrictive environment—an excellent policy. Crow Creek also has a knowledgeable tribal-court judge, who understands the Indian Child Welfare Act thoroughly.

Any more advice for evaluators?

When children are removed from families, parents or other legal guardians (such as grandparents) can react angrily. Child-protective workers might be professional and caring and able to realize this is a natural reaction—that what underlies it is fear the family will never get the child back. This type of worker collaborates with the parent or guardian to resolve the situation. However, I have seen other child-protective workers take parents’ reactions personally and begin to work against them, in essence punishing the parents and making any resolution of the situation all the more difficult. To avoid this, child-protective workers must be highly skilled. In addition, the agencies themselves must be certain to communicate to families exactly what is needed to have their children returned. If the parent or guardian is informed of all the problems and concerns, he or she can deal with them and feel stronger in court hearings, which are adversarial situations to begin with—and in which the Native parent or guardian may not have legal representation.

What backup do family therapists, child-protective workers and similar professionals have in dealing with their own job stress?

Most of us in this field have clinical supervisors, peer counselors and/or our own therapists. We check in with them continually to be sure we’re treating the people we work with as human beings and not inflicting our personal issues on them.

What is Capitol Area Counseling Service’s “growing our own” idea, and how does it address these problems?

“Growing our own” is an informal effort to identify people from Native and non-Native communities, who show aptitude for the work we do, could benefit from support to finish their education and, when they finish school, intend to work in their home community. Capitol Area is looking right now to include a Crow Creek tribal member in the program.

Final thoughts?

I have observed that Native families have to prove their worth in order to keep their children, or to become legal guardians for a relative’s children under ICWA’s provisions. In contrast, Caucasian families are worthy until proven unworthy. This is an important distinction, and I don’t think it’s understood or even talked about.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard.

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