Removal of Indigenous children from their families was so widespread that in Canada, it was given the name Sixties Scoop: the scooping of Indigenous children from their homes with little investigation before reaction. The Indigenous children scooped from their homes were adopted out to families as far away as Europe and New Zealand, echoing the earlier practice of putting children in residential schools far from home to discourage running away.
In the United States, the removal rates were so disproportionate that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was created to establish standards of placement and enable tribes to be involved in child welfare cases. Even so, the Sixties Scoop became the Millennium Scoop, and in the United States and Canada, Indigenous children continue to be removed in disproportionate numbers. In May 2018, Dakota/Lakota writer Ruth Hopkins wrote a piece for Teen Vogue about the US foster care system and its failure to care for Native American children. She writes that by the 1970s approximately 25-35 percent of Native children in the United States were placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutional settings. Some 85 percent of those children were placed outside of their communities altogether. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was supposed to address this disparity; thirty years later, however, serious disparities persist. American Indian children are almost twice as likely to be in foster care as white children; in South Dakota, they are eleven times more likely, making up 53 percent of the kids in care. Canadian numbers aren’t any better: 7.7 percent of all children under the age of fifteen are Indigenous, but of all the children in foster care who are under fifteen, 52.2 percent are Indigenous.
I worked for a child welfare organization in Canada for sixteen years. I had not gone into social work with the intention of doing child welfare, but during a placement with a community organization, I discovered that I liked working with families. Working for an organization whose mandate was the protection of children seemed like a good place to do that. Like many of the people who had worked in boarding schools, I believed in my good intentions. I didn’t think about the larger structure and the patterns that were at work.
There is no question: children deserve to be safe. But in all of my conversations at work about the risks that children faced inside their homes, we never talked about the risks that these children would face when we removed them. Most of the families that come into contact with child welfare services don’t ultimately have their children removed from their care. That fear is ever present for parents, however, because its unspoken threat is behind every question, every suggestion or command. Parents know what the child welfare worker has the capacity to do.
For Black and Native families, who are already seen as potentially dangerous or unfit, the risks are even greater. I often see memes on social media about Native children who were unloved in residential schools growing up to be parents who struggle to love their children. While I understand that these messages are intended to elicit compassion, I worry about what it tells social workers about our parents and their capacity to love their children.
And what message does it send to a Black or Native child that their own Black or Native family was dangerous, and this white foster family is safe? Because Black and brown children, if they come into care, almost always wind up with white families. That’s who usually makes it through the foster care approval process. I think often of the racially marginalized children I worked with during those years who would have wound up in white families without my intervention.
From “Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future” by Patty Krawec – Broadleaf Books