WHY is ICWA Compliance SO Important - the Expert Witness Perspective
Indian Child Welfare Experts & Cultural Competency: What is Good for the Goose is Not Good for the Gander
By Vevila Hussey, MSW & Indian Child Welfare Expert Consultant
As a former social worker and Native American Cultural Specialist for Children's Services, I personally was on the receiving end of numerous questions regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act and it's procedures. "Why do Indian people get to have an expert,” and "where do I find one” were just a couple. For those readers who have only had one or two experiences with cases in which the ICWA applies, this article is for you.
Growing up in the American public school system, young American Indian and non Indian youth are taught that Columbus "discovered” America, and that the Indians and Pilgrims happily created the first Thanksgiving dinner in a peaceful state of culinary bliss and peace. While in college some learn the truth about these falsehoods, most do not, and the number of those that learn the American Indian version of events and go into the child welfare field are even smaller. The celebration of Columbus Day and local, regional, and national sport teams who use "Indians” or something similar as their title and mascot further blur the lines. (I've frequently heard people say that there are no Indians alive today. Really??!!) Inaccurate information and stereotypes regarding American Indians flourish, and culturally relevant child rearing practices are no exception.
Central to the future survival of American Indian Tribes is the ability to ensure that Indian children are raised in accordance to traditional Tribal customs and remain within the Indian community. My American Indian readers might be shocked to know that as a Native American Specialist for an urban County child welfare program, there were numerous staff who expressed, "Who cares if the family that cares for the child is white or not? As long as they‘re not abusing them they should be happy.” I also heard, "Why is this expert telling me how to do my job?” In the case of Indian Child Welfare, what is good for the goose, is absolutely not good for the gander.
The history of American Indian / Euro-American relations has been one in which repeated attempts were made to annihilate or force the Indian to assimilate to Euro-American culture. Forced conversion to Christianity, forced relocation and attempted genocide, the division of Indian land through the Dawes Act of 1887, the attempted forced assimilation into mainstream culture through the Indian Appropriations Act, and the attempted eradication of American Indian culture after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 are just a few of the policies and practices that have fostered a deep mistrust of the American government within American Indian communities. Of significant importance was the boarding school experiences of generations of American Indians. Many youth were literally kidnapped in the middle of the night by government representatives, moved hundreds of miles away from their family, and were punished for looking like, acting like, or being American Indian. While the typical attitude of the dominant culture at the time was that they were providing a great service, changing the "savages” to Christians and all, the reality was a cold and harsh one, even for a resilient people like us. The kidnapped youth were left on their own once they became an adult, (much like those emancipating out of the foster care system today), and returned to their families' home to find they didn't fit in anymore. Suddenly, generations of American Indian's were caught between two conflicting worlds, without the benefit of the cultural traditions and strengths that once shielded them. To the detriment of Tribes, the dominant culture imposed their belief system onto their assessment of American Indian families for hundreds of years.
The Indian Child Welfare Expert Witness' role is to offer a culturally relevant assessment in Indian child welfare cases. Most Americans have no idea what is normal in South Africa or Peru, as most non-Indian Americans are also not aware of what "typical” is in the American Indian community. Is the child at risk of serious emotional and/or physical harm if left in the care of the Indian parent or custodian? While most child welfare workers can answer this question for the Euro-American family, the differing value systems and orientation to life of Indian and non-Indian communities require a Qualified Expert Witness' (QEW) assessment, as per Section 224.6 of the Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC).
In all ICWA cases the Tribe should first be contacted regarding the family's case. Accurate Tribal Notice is imperative, and must include all the information requested on the form and be sent to the correct individual on behalf of the Tribe. Ayazuta contains accurate Tribal information and is audited regularly for accuracy.
The Tribe should also be contacted to determine if they desire to provide an Expert Witness. Tribes do not always have an Expert Witness available due to the betrayal often felt by the possibility of testifying against a family member. For those cases, in California, the Administrative
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Office of the Courts has a listing of Experts according to region. Finally, many County Child Welfare Services offices already have a listing of Experts they contract with who have qualified as Expert Witnesses in Court.
To provide an accurate assessment, the QEW needs to be provided with the contact information for the family, the Tribal representative, case notes (also known as chronos), and all Court reports related to the case in question.
Today, the resilience of Tribes and American Indian people are more evident than ever. The Indian Child Welfare Expert, partnered with a social worker who follows the Indian Child Welfare Act's mandates, and the Tribe, are facilitating a return to a traditional, yet modern way of life. The goose, totally unlike the gander, is left to express it's own song.
Vevila Hussey, MSW, Indian Child Welfare Expert Consultant in California, please contact here at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like your perspective on ICWA compliance used in our next newsletter, please contact Kevin@h7i.com
We have spent 2 years researching ICWA compliance issues, and developing solutions for Tribes, States and welfare organizations. We can help you increase ICWA compliance, reduce costs, and improve outcomes for Indian Children.Ayazuta has, and will continue to evolve as a community driven design, based on benefits to the Native American Child, the Tribe and the Case Worker.