Up until this year, Minnesota's new social workers received little required training from the state on Native American child welfare laws.

A group with the University of Minnesota Duluth has stepped up to change that.

UMD's Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies has partnered with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to train the state's social workers on providing culturally responsible services to Minnesota's Native American families, who are more than 18 times more likely to have children placed in foster care when compared to white children.

Nowhere else in the country is that disparity worse than it is in Minnesota.

UMD hired Jeri Jasken to direct the partnership. She's one of several who said that additional training is one part of the solution to addressing that disparity.

"We know that compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act is low," Jasken said. "Statewide, we know that it's problematic. So training is one way in which we can address the compliance and the high out-of-home placement rates of children."

The partnership, Aabinoojiiyag-Wakhanheza Un Thantanhanpi ("For All the Children") Sacred Being: Tribal Training and Certification Partnership, is just one way the center provides Indian Child Welfare Act training to social workers.

Under the partnership, new social workers in the state will have an extra two days added on to their 40 hours of training. They're required to complete child welfare foundation training within the first six months of their start date.

The new two-day training focuses on history and intergenerational traumas within Native American communities and how that translates to what child welfare workers are seeing today, said Jasken, who's a member of the White Earth Nation.

"The first day of the training, it's all about the 'why.' It's about teaching cultural humility and how cultural bias and prior practices led to such high removals of Indian children," Jasken said. "And the second day of training is the 'how to.' It really is practice application."

Andrea Larson, a social worker in St. Louis County's Indian Child Welfare Act unit, remembers when she went through the state's foundation training about three years ago. Only a few hours of that time focused on Native American child welfare laws.

"I think our trainers really tried to give us as much information and really impress the importance and the significance of the law," Larson said. "But it was almost like it was this big scary other place, not with a lot of understanding as to why that law came to be and the benefits and what that means as worker when you're working with a Native American family."

In 2019 the Minnesota Indian Child Welfare Advisory Council recognized Larson with the social work award in its history for her work with Native American families.

While she hasn't been through the two-day training herself, she's confident that social workers will come out of it with a better grasp on the necessity of the Native American child welfare laws. With that understanding, Larson believes social workers make better decisions on the job such including families in decision making, setting goals together and giving tribal governments the chance to weigh in and be notified.

"That constant consistent communication just builds trust that we are here," Larson said. "It puts that focus back on being there to support the family, not this weird power dynamic of being the county and the court system. It brings it back down to the basic level of, 'We're here to help you.'"

She added: "Those relations generally stand for a long time. Families feel comfortable to come back and say, 'Hey, I'm kind of struggling with this. Do you have any resources for me?'"

The training partnership has been about four years in the making, said Priscilla Day, the former director of the center. Through collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Minnesota's tribal nations, the center was able to develop Indian Child Welfare Act-based curriculum. Day sought feedback from tribal nations on the curriculum prior to it being used.

"For Anishinaabe people we believe that children come from the spirit world and they choose their families," Day said. "What rights do we have to break that? Unless it's absolutely necessary ... If there is not imminent harm, you're not supposed to take those children away. You can still provide resources and supports to those families. There just should not be the level of removal that there is."

Priscilla Day
Priscilla Day

Day, who's an enrolled member with the Leech Lake Reservation, has been a part of UMD's social work department since 1993. During that time, family preservation has been her area of research.

"I've been kind of keeping an eye on what's happening, really trying to change practice in Minnesota, so that we can stop leading the nation in disproportionality," Day said, later adding: "We're partnering with the states and tribes to offer this curriculum. So we'll see, you know, five years from now if this is making any difference, but the feedback we get from people who go through either the foundation training or the bridging training is really inspiring."

The center also offers a training called called "Bridging Our Understanding: American Indian Family Preservation," which is focused on relationship building and developing a deeper understanding of historical trauma.

Day said one social worker who had gone through that training had reported back about how it had changed how she works with families, particularly in one instance while working with a mother in jail who was working toward reunification with her children. The key difference was treating the parents like a family member rather than a client.

"She said it was so different and they came up with the plan they want to have happen and then they came up with another plan in case that didn't happen and she said that woman hugged her when she left," Day said. "And she said, 'I've never had a client do that. I've taken their children out of her care and she's in jail, but we worked together to make a plan for reunification.'"

One part of the solution

The center began training social workers in January and while every new county social worker will continue to be required to participate, Jasken and her team are actively trying to engage people who have already gone through the training.

"We're just going to have to start going in to different counties and then holding training for people who have already gone through foundation (training)," said Bree Bussey, the director of the UMD center. "That's going to be (a) process, too."

Statewide, there are about 2,000 county social workers and 200-500 attend new worker training through the Department of Human Services.

In partnership with the state's Department of Human Services, the center is striving to eventually offer a 40-hour Indian Child Welfare Act certificate program that would combine the new two-day training and the "Bridging our Understanding" training created over a decade ago.

Ideally, every Minnesota social worker working with Native American families would complete 40 hours of training, Bussey said.

Prior to the pandemic, Bussey said her team was down at the capital talking to legislators about once a week. The goal is to hire more staff and contract with Minnesota's tribal nations.

"We need legislative support to have the capacity to do what we need to do. We need infrastructure," Bussey said. "For a long time it's really only been two or three of us doing all of this work on a statewide level for years and years."

The approach with the center's training isn't to focus on all the ways the systems are wrong, but instead seeks to show people how to think differently and in compliance with the law.

"People who do that work differently with families. And those families have better outcomes," Bussey said. "We just want them to understand: Here's what you can do; here's how you can do these things in a good way. It's a heart thing. It's not a head thing. We're heart people."