Below is the abstract for “Using Peacemaking Circles to Indigenize Tribal Child Welfare,” available for download on SSRN.

Historical child welfare policies explicitly aimed to exterminate Indigenous culture and disrupt tribal cohesion. The remnants of these policies form the foundation for the contemporary child welfare system. These policies view the child as an isolated and interchangeable asset, over which parents enjoy property-like rights, and in which the child welfare system is incentivized to “save” children from perceived economic, cultural, and geographic ills through an adversarial process. Extended family, community members, and cultural connections have minimal voice or value. These underpinnings inform federal policies that influence all child welfare systems, including tribal child welfare systems. The result is that tribal child welfare systems perpetuate the individual, rights-centric, adversarial child welfare system that harms Indigenous families.

Indigenous children have the right to maintain connections to their Indigenous family, tribal nation, culture, and cultural education. These rights translate into obligations the community owes to the child to ensure that these connections are robust. Tradition-based systems of dispute resolution—frequently called “peacemaking,” among other names, but which we will call “circle processes”—offer a hopeful alternative.

Circle processes are rooted in an Indigenous worldview that perceives an issue, particularly a child welfare issue, as evidence of community imbalance that directly impacts the community, and conversely, imparts an obligation on the community to respond. Through the circle, family and community can complete their natural reciprocal relationship.

Tribal child welfare has the potential to be a transformative system that promotes community, family, and children’s health and the self-determination and sovereignty of tribes. This Article outlines the ways in which the modern tribal child welfare system has been structured to compartmentalize families and perpetuate historical federal policies of Indian family separation. This Article then suggests that circle processes are a framework for re-Indigenizing the tribal child welfare system to not just improve outcomes (for which it has the potential to do), but to also honor the interconnected, responsibility oriented worldview of Indigenous communities. Ultimately, however, tribes should lead that re-Indigenization process, whether through a circle process framework or otherwise.

Lauren van Schilfgaarde

UCLA School of Law

Lauren van Schilfgaarde (Cochiti Pueblo) is a UCLA Research Fellow at UCLA School of Law and previously was the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Legal Development Clinic Director at UCLA Law. van Schilfgaarde supervised live-client projects concerning tribal governance and justice systems, ethics, cultural resource protection, voting, child welfare, and more.

Brett Lee Shelton

Native American Rights Fund

Brett Lee Shelton (Oceti Sakowin Oyate) has been a fierce advocate in the field of Indian Law for more than 25 years. Prior to joining NARF as a staff attorney, Brett spent several years working in private practice and for nonprofits focused on domestic violence responses, genetic research and Indigenous Peoples, and Indian health policy. More recently, his work at NARF focuses on the Indigenous Peacemaking InitiativeSacred Places Protection, and Boarding School Healing.


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