Practice-Informed Approaches to Addressing Substance Abuse and Trauma Exposure in Urban Native Families Involved with Child Welfare

By Lucero, Nancy M.; Bussey, Marian | Child Welfare, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Practice-Informed Approaches to Addressing Substance Abuse and Trauma Exposure in Urban Native Families Involved with Child Welfare


Lucero, Nancy M., Bussey, Marian, Child Welfare


The movement of American Indians into urban areas that began in earnest in the 1950s has resulted in 78% of all American Indians and Alaska Natives now living in cities rather than on reservations or in tribal communities (Norris, Vines, & Hoeffel, 2012). Urban-based American Indian and Alaska Native ("Native") families who become involved in the child welfare system often present with multiple challenges stemming from an interacting constellation of behavioral, emotional, relational, and economic issues. These challenges can tax the capacity of parents (and other relative caregivers) to provide for the social, emotional, physical, and safety needs of their children. Non-Native child welfare workers have reported that cases that involve urban Native families in which one or more members abuse substances can be some of the most difficult; workers also report that they lack experience and skills in working with this population (Lucero, 2007). Caregiver substance abuse and behavioral health conditions, along with a lack of cultural responsiveness in child protective services (CPS) departments and community-based ser vice delivery systems, can create increased risk for Native families' involvement in the child welfare system-particularly non-kinship out-of-home placement of children (Carter, 2010; Libby et al., 2011).

Since 2000, the Denver [Colorado] Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC) has been providing intensive case management and supportive services to urban Native families who are involved in or at risk of involvement in the child welfare system. In addition to direct services to families, the agency has been engaged collaboratively in system change efforts with county-level public child welfare departments, the Colorado Department of Human Services, and community-based service delivery systems in an effort to improve the experiences of Native families when involved in a child welfare case or when accessing services.

DIFRC has engaged in comprehensive evaluation of its programs and services since the agency's inception. This focus on evaluation has produced in-depth knowledge of the needs and characteristics of urban Native families involved with child welfare and a body of practiceinformed evidence about what works with this population and how to provide services in a culturally responsive way.

Cultural responsiveness in Indian Child Welfare begins with the ability of an agency and its individual workers to acknowledge the wide diversity in cultural expression and experiences of members of the nearly 600 different American Indian and Alaska Native groups. Responsiveness is marked by the flexibility to adapt child welfare services so that they are congruent and incorporate cultural strengths, such as extended kinship networks; expressions of the values of generosity, respect, and humility; and clients' cultural worldviews and traditional practices, including ceremonies, feasts, and community gatherings. Practicing in a culturally responsive way requires that workers integrate skills, attitudes, and values that facilitate the helping process with an understanding of historical and contemporary experiences of Native people and communities (Weaver, 1999). The intention of this article is to share with the field information and practice knowledge specifically about the subset of the urban Native child welfare population with substance abuse and trauma issues so that child welfare professionals and community-based practitioners can increase their cultural responsiveness and thereby become more skilled in practicing with urban Native clients.

Challenges of Urban Native Families with Substance Abuse, Trauma, and Child Welfare Involvement

Although each urban Native family is unique, and good casework, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the family, requires a thorough assessment of family strengths, challenges, and characteristics, practice experience has identified a set of conditions that are frequently found among urban Native families involved with child welfare. …

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