Children's Voice Dec 2005

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Terry Cross

The Responsibility of the Reconciled

By Terry Cross

In October, five national organizations from the United States and Canada (the Child Welfare League of America, the Child Welfare League of Canada, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and the Center for Excellence in Child Welfare at the University of Toronto) hosted a North American forum on reconciliation in child welfare. Indigenous and nonindigenous leaders from communities, professions, and governments, who are committed to changing the way we think and act as social workers to benefit indigenous children and their families, convened in the spirit of reconciliation.

Reconciliation takes two willing partners, the injured and the perpetrator. Over the past centuries, indigenous peoples of North America have experienced oppression, loss, and exclusion. Yet, indigenous and nonindigenous peoples understand that the way forward for our children depends on our ability to hear the lessons of the past, learn from them, and carve out, in a vigilant way, a new relationship together based on respectful coexistence.

Mainstream helping professionals, policymakers, researchers, and child welfare leaders comprise people of good intent who care about human rights and justice. Why, then, do they usually conduct their affairs as if indigenous people do not exist? Emilios Christodoulidis of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, writing about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, cited the following quote from French philosopher Simone Weil:

"You do not interest me." No man can say these words without committing a cruelty and offending against justice. *

The phrase is manifest in many forms, such as when Native peoples are ignored in research findings and lumped among the amorphous category "other" or reported as "insignificant." Most often, the essence of this phrase appears as acts of omission. It is why policy does not change, even when report after report affirms that change is necessary. It is why practice does not change, even when helpers are of good will, open mind, and rational thought. It is at least part of the reason the same government that enacts policy to preserve the family can be the agent of destruction of indigenous families through perpetuation of boarding schools.

The reasons many interventions in child welfare are unhelpful or destructive for indigenous communities stem from two closely related, larger societal problems:
  • systemic colonialism, a situation that allows the more powerful to take what they want from the less powerful--in this case, American Indian/Alaska Native peoples, and

  • racism, the treating of indigenous peoples differently just because of their racial heritage.
We must have the courage to recognize the mistakes of the past but, more importantly, the presence of mind to recognize new forms of colonialism today. Nowhere is this more exemplified and critical to our understanding than in the momentum moving the child welfare field toward evidence-based practice. No one should argue against accountability or the value of research informing practice, but the child welfare field is at risk of having evidence-based practice become the latest wave of colonial oppression.

Community-based, culturally specific services will never achieve the status now bestowed upon interventions proven in randomized control trials. A traditional culture-helping approach will likely never be, nor should it be, distilled down to an instructional manual. Funders and policymakers are beginning to limit program funding to evidence-based interventions. But if the field ignores the implications of imposing services on native people just because they work in someone's randomized control sample, we are condemned to remain oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized. We must have the courage to ask questions like, "Who gets to determine what evidence is considered?" "Who defines success?" and "Who controls the approved lists?"

To redress these problems, a necessary beginning point is to build relationships by engaging in dialogue that will initiate a process of reconciliation between mainstream child welfare and the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. This dialogue must be founded on principles of respect, understanding, inclusion, and truth. It involves a confirmation of, and learning from, our historical experiences and moving toward a new sustainable relationship that supports children who thrive.

This new relationship will foster recognition and support for the right and ability of indigenous peoples to make the best decisions for indigenous children. The ultimate goal of this process in both the United States and Canada--for both aboriginal and nonaboriginal peoples--is unity in child welfare in support of the well-being of children.

The goal of October's international meeting was, and remains, to build relationships and engage in dialogue that will initiate a process of truth and reconciliation between mainstream child welfare and the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. This will necessarily mean acknowledging and affirming the sovereign and moral authority of indigenous peoples' governments to make decisions about their children.

This event puts in focus current relationships between indigenous peoples and the child welfare system, calling for a confirmation of, and learning from, our historical experiences, and moving toward a new, sustainable relationship that supports successful children and is founded on principles of respect, understanding, inclusion, and truth. Together, we will strive for excellence in child welfare.

Terry Cross is Executive Director, National Indian Child Welfare Association, Portland, Oregon.

"Other Voices" provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on cross-cutting issues.

* Christodoulidis, E.A. (2000). "Truth and Reconciliation as Risks." Social and Legal Studies, 9: (2) 179-204.


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