An Examination of the Living Conditions of Urban American Indian Children in Unmarried Families: Increasing Cultural Competence in Child Welfare

By Limb, Gordon E.; Garza, Ryan | Child Welfare, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

An Examination of the Living Conditions of Urban American Indian Children in Unmarried Families: Increasing Cultural Competence in Child Welfare


Limb, Gordon E., Garza, Ryan, Child Welfare


The past 50 years have revealed dramatically shifting trends in the familial structure of American society. When examining these trends, and family research in general, the American Indian family unit has received little to no attention. This study utilized data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine the living conditions of urban American Indian children in unmarried families. Results showed that while these children appear to have a strong start, concerns are raised regarding American Indian mothers' low educational achievement and high incidence of poverty. These concerns can lead to potential issues regarding sustained development that can arise as the children grow. Therefore, child welfare workers must understand these issues and work to ameliorate them in order to provide culturally competent services to urban American Indian families and children.

The past 50 years have revealed dramatically shifting trends in the American institutional family (Bumpass, Sweet, ÔcCherlin, 1991; Martin, 2006). Five percent of births were to unmarried women in the 1950s, but increased to almost half of all births by 2008 (Cherlin,2005; Hamilton, Martin, &c Ventura, 2010). These numbers are particularly important to various racial and ethnic groups, as recent studies have concluded that approximately 80% of unmarried births in the United States occur among people of color (McLanahan et al., 2003). As a result, the rise in single-parenting and cohabitation has sparked a number of studies regarding the possible outcomes of this family formation. While being born into an unmarried family may predispose a child to several disadvantages, research has been conducted to ascertain whether these disadvantages may be more prevalent among specific racial and ethnic groups (McLanahan et al., 2003; Manning <$c Smock, 1995; Padilla, Radey, Hummer, <3c Kim, 2006).

In these studies, and in family research in general, the American Indian family has received little to no attention. The current study utilized data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine the living conditions of urban American Indian children in unmarried families. The purpose of this study is to shed light on the issues faced by urban American Indian families, in comparison to white and black families, in regard to family formation, social support, and other background characteristics. Understanding these conditions and their implications on American Indian families and children allows child welfare workers to be better prepared in their efforts to provide culturally competent services to this important group of color. The following sections examine these three areas and their impact on American Indian families.

Family Formation, Social Support and Background Characteristics in the General Population

Numerous scholars report increasing rates of children born to unmarried families (Cherlin, 2005; Bumpass <3c Lu, 2000; Resnick, Wattenberg, <$c Brewer, 1994). This trend continues to rise,with cohabitation being one of the most common family formations (Brown, 2000; Goodwin, Mosher, 6c Chandra, 2010). As the definition of family continues to evolve, researchers are focusing more and more on the characteristics, nuances, and challenges that the unmarried familial formation presents (Amato, Booth, Johnson, 6c Rogers, 2007).

Among these nuances, social support plays an important role in quality of life issues. Mothers who feel that their basic needs are met are attributed to better parenting (McLeod 6c Shanahan, 1993). Childcare assistance and emotional support have also been found to lower levels of emotional distress among mothers (Macphee, Fritz, 6c Miller-Heyl, 1996). Given the importance of social support, it is notable that a perceived lack of support could add to hardships felt by these unmarried mothers (Teitler, Reichman, 6cNepomnyaschy,2004).

When examining background characteristics such as health, education, and poverty, scholars have found a pattern of disadvantage and disparity among individuals living in unmarried families (McLanahan 6c Sandefur, 1994). …

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