An American Indian Grandparent’s Perspective on Kinship Care

by Tonia Jacobs Deese •

In many cultures, caring for the children of relatives is an honored practice that goes back thousands of years. For this article, I spoke with Sappony Tribe member Shelia Wilson about her experience as an American Indian kinship caregiver. The Sappony people live in the Piedmont region along the North Carolina and Virginia border.

Please tell us about your transition to caring for your grandchildren.
Our grandchildren initially came into our home seven years ago due to a tragic car accident. My husband and I were very involved in the children’s lives before the accident. They spent every summer with us, we knew their doctors, etc. That made the transition easier.

One struggle we had was the change in roles. We went from being grandparents spoiling our grandchildren to having to say no and be strict. We worried they would notice the difference when the other grandchildren came to visit. We try our best to give love and attention to everyone equally.

The good news is that we know a lot more about raising children now than when we were parents ourselves. We are grateful for this time with our grandchildren. They are 11 and 17 years old now.

What was your interaction with the child welfare system like?
Our people have taken in children for generations, before kinship care and DSS even existed. American Indian people take care of each other, especially our youth and elders, whenever the need arises. It’s just something we do. We aren’t used to the system being involved to assess us, or even help us.

DSS from two different counties were involved, because we and their other grandparents wanted the children. We had to fight the system a bit because we have a two-bedroom home, and DSS wanted each child to have their own room. Eventually we got primary custody, but there was a court battle. DSS was good to work with once they realized the children were doing well with us.

Are there barriers to American Indian kin working with the child welfare system?
There is a long history of mistreatment of American Indian people by the system. In the past our children were taken from us and put in boarding schools across the country. We weren’t allowed to visit each other. Our children couldn’t speak their language. Their culture and traditions were stripped from them. They were made to assimilate. The goal was to “Kill the Indian to save the child.” [The Sappony] have people who live in Pennsylvania to this day because their children were sent to boarding schools there. They lost their connection to their community and tribe. Then, there was a mass effort to place American Indian children in foster care across the country to be adopted by white families. This was in the 1970s, and it wasn’t based on abuse and neglect. It was based on the idea that Indian children would be better off with a white family.

To this day, there is a lot of mistrust of the child welfare system. We are afraid people will misunderstand our culture or won’t ensure our children learn about our culture. We have experienced this directly. We have seen the system place priority over our grandchildren attending a basketball game than holding onto their cultural connections. Being involved in tribal activities is much more important than basketball to their well-being. That’s one of the reasons I became a Guardian ad Litem. I didn’t want a Native American child to come into the system in my county and have no one to support them.

How is caring for an American Indian child different? What are the unique supports your family has because of your culture?
We are traditionally a matriarchal society. Our women don’t have to be the boss, but we are the ones who get things done. We truly have a village to help us raise our grandchildren. The women are careful to include them in the daily things we do, so they learn about their culture. My grandson has been volunteering in the tribe’s youth camp for two years, so he’s able to step into a leadership role for our younger youth now.

What advice do you have for social workers and kinship caregivers?
To social workers I would say be careful when making custody or visitation arrangements. The schedule shouldn’t create barriers for youth to be involved in their culture, such as NCNAYO events (the NC Native American Youth Organization). American Indian youth need to feel included, to feel connected to their people—not just their immediate brothers and sisters, but to their full community. This extends their family and the amount of support they have. It places them in something bigger than they are.

We (caregivers) need that support and connection to our tribe, too. Reach out to get your own support, to take care of you. Don’t rush your time with the child or youth, because it will go by fast!

Tonia Jacobs Deese is a clinical instructor with the UNC School of Social Work.