Danialle Rose, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is a licensed certified social worker and mental health professional with Capital Area Counseling Service, central South Dakota’s state mental health center, where she works with children and families on the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe’s reservation. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke to her about families who were separated by child-welfare issues but are now reunited.
When children removed from the home return to it, how do they seem?
I frequently see anger in the children and resistance to joining activities. Before they were taken and placed in foster care or a residential setting, they went to pow wows but now have forgotten how to dance. I see oversensitivity to stress; they’ll melt down quickly if problems arise. I also observe hypervigilance and fear when an unknown Caucasian arrives on the reservation. Even children who have never been removed from their families may be fearful when they see an unknown vehicle, because they know about the possibility of being taken away. If they were taken when they were at school, they may be afraid to go there again.
How do you handle that?
I use play therapy with young children and talking circles with older children. I involve the youngsters in gatherings, such as potlucks, to develop a sense of community and show them who their relatives are. I make sure they have fun!
How does the return of a child affect the family?
Everyone has to develop routines and get to know each other again. This process affects not only the immediate family but also the community at large. On a reservation, many can be aware of what’s going on with others. The situation is different from off-reservation communities, where neighbors may have no idea what’s going on in another home. Numerous people on a reservation will share in the trauma of a removal; then, when the child returns, they often worry that things won’t work out, that the parents won’t maintain whatever is necessary—sobriety, therapy and so on—to keep the family together. The reunited family then finds itself under a microscope, adding another type of stress.
What advice do you give to these parents?
Reassure worried relatives and community members that you’re doing what’s required and that the children’s needs are being met. Try not to get defensive or angry about the concerns that are expressed. If a child is having problems or acting out, we adults often say to them, “It’ll get better, go play.” Instead, try to ask questions, quietly posing follow-up questions until you get to the heart of what’s wrong.
What might an outside, non-Native evaluator misunderstand when looking at a Native family?
They may not realize the importance of grandparents in the lives of Native children. They can also make unwarranted judgments about the family’s values or economic situation. For example, they’ll arrive at the home and see discarded appliances in the yard and assume the parents don’t care or are destitute. Outsiders won’t realize that the underfunded tribal landfill picks up such items once a year. I am also aware of non-Native child-protective workers who still subscribe to the long-rejected notion that Native children are simply better off with strangers—that if the youngsters have a problem, they have to be separated from their families to get better.
How does Crow Creek Sioux Tribe deal with this?
The tribe’s mental health code says children must be treated in the least restrictive environment—an excellent policy. Crow Creek also has a knowledgeable tribal-court judge, who understands the Indian Child Welfare Act [ICWA] thoroughly.
What backup do family therapists, child-protective workers and similar professionals have in dealing with their stresses that come with this job?
Most of us in this field have clinical supervisors, peer counselors and/or our own therapists. We check in with them continually to be sure we’re treating the people we work with as human beings and not inflicting our personal issues on them.
What is Capital Area Counseling Service’s “growing our own” idea?
“Growing our own” is an informal effort to identify people from Native and non-Native communities who show aptitude for the work we do, and could benefit from support to finish their education and, when they finish school, intend to work in their home community. Capital Area is looking right now to include a Crow Creek tribal member in the program.
I have observed that Native families have to prove their worth in order to keep their children, or to become legal guardians for a relative’s children under ICWA’s provisions. In contrast, Caucasian families are [deemed] worthy until proven unworthy. This is an important distinction, and I don’t think it’s understood or even talked about.
Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.