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Social Workers Attend ICWA Conference

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Social workers walk a fine line between protecting children and helping parents who may not have the skills to properly raise them. While there are problems in virtually every ethnic group, they focused today on Native American children.

Social workers have come from all over the state to try to find ways to keep Indian children out of the foster care system. Statistics indicate that they are removed from their homes three times as often as non-Indians. Less than a third are victims of abuse. Most are cases of neglect.

"In the '50s, there was an effort to, quote, 'save children,' by moving them into non-Indian homes. That was the official policy. So, kids were removed too often," says Judge William Thorne, Child Welfare Advocate.

Today, Indian children are sent to foster homes or adopted because their parents and grandparents were often raised in boarding schools and didn't have a parental role model.

"With the BIA boarding schools, you have children learning to parent from the matrons of the dormitories. So, if you've never really had parents, it's hard to learn how to be a parent," says Thorne.

The goal of this conference is to help break that cycle. But sometimes that approach isn't enough. Debra Red-Ears Hempler entered foster care when she was only three weeks old.
Her older brother sought help after her mother abandoned her.

"That social worker that came that night, started me on my path, saved my life. Social workers are lifesavers to me," says Red- Ears Hempler.

Hempler was adopted by a white family, but says she never questioned her cultural identity, which is a concern for many children removed from their families. She says she wants social workers to understand that it can work and there's always room for change.

"We could probably keep those kids at home and work intensively with the family to help fix the problem instead of having to remove them to foster care. It's more effective, it's easier on the kids, and it's cheaper. We just need to rethink how we do things," says Thorne.

Judge Thorne says removal is not enough. Social workers need to work with families to fix the problem. The conference continues at the Seven Seas in Mandan through Friday.

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