November 30, 2021
By Nimo Ali, Field Center Lerner Fellow in Child Welfare Policy
As I close out my first semester at the Field Center as the 2021-2022 Lerner Fellow, I am struck by the competing narratives of the Thanksgiving holiday and their echoes in the current Child Welfare System discourse. As an immigrant child, I learned the history and culture of the United States through public education, not at home. In school, Thanksgiving was always rendered as the commemoration of a powerful moment in United States history. It was cast as a meal of sharing and gratitude across difference, an example of American values. According to this narrative, the English pilgrims were taught by the Wampanoag , a Native tribe, to farm the land and prepare for the coming winter. The pilgrims reciprocated with a feast of celebration and thanks. But I eventually learned the holiday was invented by President Lincoln during the civil war and the actual event was merely a meal between allies who had signed a peace treaty only months earlier . The day commemorates a legal and political relationship. Yet, the myth of Native folks helping the English settlers to farm and find safety and security against the winter perseveres.
This past Thanksgiving marks the 52nd year that Native Americans have traveled to the very town the pilgrims settled to attend a National Day of Mourning – a day of community mourning and prayer against “the unjust system based on racism, settler colonialism, sexism, homophobia and the profit-driven destruction of the earth” and also, this year, to “highlight the troubled legacy of federal boarding schools .” As the true history of Thanksgiving becomes more common and less ignored, the national narrative may shift. In my experience, highlighting harms and one’s potential role in furthering a harm is not easily met with acceptance or acquiescence.
The current movement to abolish the child welfare system uses similar language in describing its opposition to a “system [that] functions to maintain anti-Blackness, white supremacy, racial capitalism, and colonialism .” In both instances, communities that have been historically segregated, surveilled, and criminalized are highlighting continual harms and demanding new language and alternatives to the status quo.
As I think about these competing narratives and troubled histories, I keep returning to the choices in language. The child welfare system constructs a narrative with the language of protection, security, and stability. In my research, it has become clear that those words mean very different things to the child welfare system and the movement to abolish it, respectively. My thinking about safety, security, and stability leads me to questions of power. Who gets to be safe? What does safety look like? Who gets to be secure and stable? What does that look like? Who decides? At what cost? And who pays that cost? These questions have been at the center of my professional and academic journey to working in and thinking about child welfare.
My journey to child welfare work was circuitous. My very first internship, the summer after my freshman year at college, was at the Lakota People’s Law Project as a Research Intern in Rapid City, South Dakota. At the time, the Project was looking for a research assistant that was willing to spend time on the Oglala Pine Ridge Reservation, some 120 miles away from Rapid City, which would mean some overnight stays. I knew scant little about Native American histories, South Dakota, or child welfare, and I was and still am deeply grateful for the preparation materials that they sent to me. I was instructed to develop an understanding of the area’s history, the Lakota culture, and familiarize myself with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (IWCA). Upon arriving, I was quickly put to work. I was tasked with interviewing families that had their children removed by child welfare workers, and parents who had their parental rights terminated. I pored over family court documents, services, and termination documents, and helped write a memorandum outlining the State’s ICWA violations. Yet, even then, I was only beginning to understand the consequences of this particular legislation and the significance of its compliance metrics.
Before ICWA, the rate of Native American children being separated from their families was staggering – 25 to 35 percent of all Native American children had been taken from their families and tribes, with around 90 percent of those children placed in non-Native homes . ICWA is a federal law that centers the Tribes’ definition of the security and safety of their children, which Congress codified to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families .”
After college, I engaged with the Child Welfare System again as an educator and mandated reporter in Philadelphia Public Schools. Even then, I would have been hard pressed to explain how the child welfare system works in its myriad steps, what happens after reporting, where the funding comes from, and how safety and security are defined and decided. In both experiences, most of the families I worked with were surviving many challenges – poverty, employment struggles, and a dearth of resources. In education work, I began to think seriously about whether this child welfare system was helping families or adding to their struggles, actually making families less stable, less safe, less secure.
Now, thirteen years later, I am once again researching and reflecting on ICWA – exploring its legal future, its significance to sovereignty and self-determination, and its place in the larger narrative of rethinking or abolishing the child welfare system. To me, the history undergirding the push for ICWA feels analogous to the current calls for abolition – stark disproportionality, a history of structural oppression, and the use of poverty as a proxy for moral failings sufficient for state intervention. These parallels lead me back to my original questions of power in the context of narrative framing. What does child safety look like? What does family security and stability look like? Who gets to be safe? Who gets to be secure and stable? Who decides? At what cost? And who pays it?