Child Well-Being in American Indian and Tribal Communities

May 23, 2023
By Sharon Hirsch, PCANC President & CEO

In late February, the NC Commission on Indian Affairs held their 7th Annual Indian Child Welfare Gathering. Prevent Child Abuse NC (PCANC) President & CEO Sharon Hirsch participated on a panel discussion with the Hunt Institute about the connection between early childhood systems and child welfare. Hirsch reflects on the conversation. 

When I was asked to participate in the panel to talk about what the data says about the American Indian children in our child welfare system and what the evidence says prevents abuse and neglect, I knew the data would show a disparate impact on tribal children. When we dug into the data, we saw it more clearly. 

So, what does the data say?  

Nationally, we know that American Indian or Alaska Native children are screened-in for child maltreatment investigations at the second highest rate of all races and ethnicities, second only to Black children. Once screened in, they have the highest percentage of substantiated reports and rate of victimization than all other races or ethnicities. 

Before the pandemic, in 2019, Alaska Native or American Indian children made up 1.1% of the population of children and 1.8% of child maltreatment investigations in NC. The percentage almost quadruples to 3.9% when we look at substantiated cases of child maltreatment. Despite their small representation in the general population, Alaskan Native or American Indian children are overrepresented in child maltreatment investigations and substantiations in NC. 

When taken alone, this data paints a picture of disproportional child maltreatment in tribal communities. But, in general, and especially in tribal communities, we must think very critically about the data and place it in context to understand why it appears this way. There are systemic factors at play including a unique, multi-generational overload of stress placed on families in tribal communities.   

The policies we set can either help create the nurturing, positive environments children need to thrive, or they can channel serious stressors into certain communities, undermining child well-being.  

Let’s look closer at tribal communities. When we look deeper at the data, we see that almost 85% of substantiated reports involving tribal communities are for neglect (compared to about 60% in the general population). We know that our child welfare system often conflates poverty and neglect. More than half of Native children in the US are poor or near poor. As a result, we push a disproportionate number of families from disenfranchised communities, such as tribal communities, into the child welfare system simply because resources are not equitably distributed.  

Contact with the child welfare system and family separation are traumatic, adverse childhood experiences for children and their caretakers. Science shows that childhood trauma can lead to a toxic stress response in our brains and bodies that puts us at significantly increased risk for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life. 

To effectively nurture positive childhoods for all children, we must acknowledge, address, and dismantle the root causes of trauma and stress that tribal communities face, including the structural racism that our country’s child welfare system was built on. Unjust policies and practices lead to harmful conditions and adversities that can disrupt healthy development – leading to lost potential. Child abuse and neglect costs North Carolina taxpayers more than $4,000 every minute in health care, costs to the justice system and lost worker productivity. Yet, we know child abuse and neglect is preventable.   

What does the evidence tell us about what works to address the root causes of these unhealthy and negative outcomes? 

When Protective Factors are in place, abuse and neglect is less likely.  Four of the five Protective Factors focus on supporting and strengthening the knowledge, supports, and competencies of adults. Children cannot survive on their own, so we must invest in their families and other adults in the community that support them. 

Thanks to support from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, we are working with Robeson, Bladen and Columbus counties, which have a large Lumbee population, to create and implement Community Prevention Action Plans. These communities are focusing first on educating the community about Protective Factors and the importance of positive relationships to support families; training community members using Connections Matter; and building their capacity to collect and analyze data so that they can make the case for future investments.  

Other communities are focusing on concrete family friendly workplace policies, asking their city and county governments and large employers to provide Paid Family and Medical Leave, Paid Sick Leave, and Paid Kin Care Leave policies to support families as they care for newborns, sick children, and other extended family.  

More are working to expand the availability of home visiting and parenting education programs.  Knowledge of positive parenting practices and the stages of child development are Protective Factors. Less than 2% of all babies and their parents in NC currently have access to home visiting. Universal home visiting through Family Connects, and other programs like Parents as Teachers, Healthy Families, and Nurse Family Partnership, and parenting programs like Triple P and Incredible Years that target families at risk consistently show low child maltreatment rates for participating families compared to those who do not participate. 

Finally, policies that empower families to meet their basic needs and strengthen household financial security are linked to reducing the risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Every policy we set – from tax credits to paid leave – should reduce that financial stress on families and increase the time and capacity for supportive family relationships.  Research consistently indicates that when families have greater financial security – whether it is expanded SNAP benefits; access to affordable, quality childcare; a refundable EITC; Medicaid expansion; housing subsidies; or an increased minimum wage – children are less likely to be reported to CPS and foster care entries drop. 

All of these strategies aim to reduce the overload of stress on families and build the safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments that children need to thrive. Every child is filled with tremendous promise – and we have a shared obligation to foster their potential. When we target investments in tribal communities by strengthening the health and well-being of children and families, we build resilience to help overcome tough times, strengthen families, nurture positive childhoods and build a stronger foundation for everyone’s future well-being – one based on racial and economic justice.