Tuesday, February 07, 2023

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IV. The Impact of the Boarding School Era on the Provision of Social Services

Considering the findings in the sections above, a very relevant question for policy makers is how this impact affects the provision of social services and other government based programs. The impact that the boarding school experience had on American Indians both individually and culturally had even wider implications; it was just one more example of American Indian suffering at the hands of the U.S. government. One specific outcome of the boarding school policies is that American Indians' distrust of the U.S. government and its motives was cemented for many more generations.

One specific area where the impact of the boarding school era can be seen is with respect to child welfare services. A recent example of the source of American Indian distrust of government involves the state's use of their police power to bring American Indian children into the child protection system. Citing mental health problems, alcoholism, and "lack of parenting skills," government officials often removed American Indian children from their homes and placed them into foster or adoptive homes, thus perpetuating the cycle of removal.

During the 1960s and 1970s, American Indian children were being removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian adoptive and foster homes at alarmingly high rates. Additionally, many boarding schools were still operating during this period with the BIA estimating that approximately 17% of the American Indian school-age population was living away from their families in boarding schools. This continued removal, whether in the form of boarding schools or involuntary out-of-home placements, operated to continue the destruction of American Indian people as such by further removing individuals from their families, their culture, and their language. Therefore, while the official policy of assimilation may not have been enforced, the spirit of the policy was still perpetuated by the paternalistic and misguided governmental actions of looking out for the "best interest" of American Indian children.

Not only were American Indians much more likely to have experienced involuntary removal, but there were often less than convincing justifications to support the removal. For example, American Indian children were rarely removed as a result of physical abuse. More often, vague justifications such as "neglect" or "social deprivation" were given. However, a closer look at these rationales shows that what social workers saw as "neglect" or "social deprivation" was actually a misunderstanding of differences in culture.

Practices that might be considered poor parenting from the nuclear family perspective of Euro-American social workers were often reflections of quality parenting that had deep cultural significance to American Indians. Therefore, the relationship between parents and intervening social workers were often complex and complicated. Given that the frequency with which these relationships ended in the termination of parental rights and adoptions of American Indian children into non-American Indian families, the mistrust that American Indians feel towards government programs that purport to look out for the "best interests of the child" is understandable.

Another area where the interaction between American Indians and the U.S. government reflects the scars of the boarding school era is with respect to welfare and cash-assistance programs. Welfare is a very politically charged topic, and often this political energy leads to reforms. One such welfare reform was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which was signed into law by President Clinton. The act repealed an existing assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and replaced it with a comprehensive program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The change in the program also reflected a change in basic policy. AFDC was a cash-assistance entitlement program and TANF was built on the idea of encouraging self sufficiency, and specifically provides that there is no entitlement to TANF. Unlike AFDC, TANF had strict time limits and work requirements. Recipients were to use their time on TANF to engage in work experience and training in order to gain the skills and ability to support themselves and their families by the time they reached their TANF time limit. This shift in policy was probably uncomfortable for American Indians because it reflected another broken promise from the U.S. government; another situation where they were told they would be provided for only to have the government rescind.

Another new aspect of the program was the decision to focus resources less on eligibility requirements and determinations, but instead on program outcomes. In order to ensure results, Congress required the states to be accountable to the federal government to meet pre-selected outcomes or face cuts to program funding. Additionally, recipients of TANF faced sanctions if they did not comply with the program's work activity and child support requirements. American Indians have fallen victim to the use of sanctioning before, and for many, the requirement to work or face sanction may have reminded them of the tough choices made by relatives between sending their children to boarding schools or having their government rations withheld.

The Minnesota Legislature enacted the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) in order to implement the TANF program developed by the federal government. MFIP provides recipients with monthly cash assistance and food stamps, and each participant is required to work with an Employment Service Provider (ESP). The basic requirements of the program are relatively straight forward. Participants are required to work with an ESP to develop a plan, which they are required to follow. Failure to strictly follow this plan can result in the initiation of the sanction process. Minnesota uses a progressive sanctioning process starting with a 10% reduction of the cash grant for the first month of sanction, followed by a 30% reduction in the cash grant for the second through sixth occurrence of sanction. The seventh sanction is a 100% sanction and case closure. The participant's case needs to remain closed for a full thirty days before they can become eligible for MFIP.

The employment plan (EP) requirement essentially consists of a contract between the job counselor and the MFIP participant. The EP generally spells out what job-related activities the participant will engage in and what support services the job counselor will provide to assist the participant. The EP is to be written in a way that will lead most directly to self-sufficiency for the participant. The philosophy of self-sufficiency underlying the MFIP program was difficult for American Indians to swallow because it goes against the collectivistic values of American Indian culture. Additionally, the required EPs, much like past treaties, are essentially a forced contract between American Indians and the U.S. government. The cultural conflict underlying the program, the learned distrust American Indians have regarding the U.S. government combined with the forced nature of the contract, add up to a major obstacle to successful outcomes.

According to a variety of important MFIP measures, American Indians tend to have less success on MFIP than other demographic groups. For example, one measure used to determine the long term success of MFIP participants is the Self Support Index. According to this measure, American Indians have a success rate of 59.7% compared to a statewide rate of 71.1%. Another important measure of MFIP success is the Work Participation Rate. Here, American Indians fared much better compared to statewide rates; the statewide Work Participation Rate for American Indians was 33.9% with a statewide rate of 36.3%. A study of case sanction rates in Ramsey County, Minnesota, found similar trends regarding sanction levels with American Indians being sanctioned at 6.5%, which is out of proportion considering that American Indians only represent 2.6% of the MFIP population in that county. As the numbers show, American Indians are not having great success with the MFIP program, and as the sanction numbers indicate, this is partially due to a lack of engagement with the program.