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NICWA’s ‘Protecting Our Children’ conference begins online

The annual “Protecting Our Children” conference hosted by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) is taking place online for the first time.

Most recent scheduled conferences across the U.S. have cancelled, postponed or transitioned events into digital gatherings in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), the executive director of NICWA, opened the conference March 30 and will serve as the host for three days of programming through April 1.

“COVID-19 is a direct threat to the safety and wellbeing of Native families everywhere,” she said. “Now more than ever, we need to rely on our culture and teachings.”

In its 38th year, the conference was previously scheduled to take place in Denver, Colorado, from March 29 to April 1. The Seminole Tribe is one of the main sponsors of the event.

NICWA is a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, whose mission is to protect Native children and keep them connected to their families, communities and culture.

Cross was the opening keynote speaker for the online conference. (Photo NICWA)

Its work includes helping tribes prevent child abuse and neglect, and advocating for pro-Native American child welfare changes in state, federal and tribal systems of government. NICWA is a strong proponent of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Kastelic welcomed hundreds of attendees to the virtual conference, many of them child welfare providers and advocates. She then introduced the opening keynote speaker – Terry L. Cross (Seneca Nation).

His presentation was titled “Child Welfare as Medicine.” Cross said that Native Americans have to protect their children and that Western approaches do not work.

“Colonization happened to us, it does not define us,” he said. “We are vital human beings to whom terrible things have happened. Trauma can be healed.”

Cross is the founder and senior adviser at NICWA. He has 47 years of experience in child welfare.

“For colonialism to succeed, they took territory, land, natural resources, sovereignty, legitimacy of thought … and the children,” he said. “We have to overcome these things that are so damaging to our children.”

Cross said its been his life’s work, and that of NICWA, to end the cycle of trauma, child abuse, substance abuse, mental health issues, the “collective traumas” that Native American families and children have been subject to over time.

He said examples of trauma effecting Native American children today include substance abuse, violence, sexual assault, emotional abuse, bullying, bystander trauma, chronic trauma, poverty and more.

However, the “touchstones of hope” in combating those issues, Cross said, are self-determination; culture and language; use of a holistic approach; structural interventions and non-discrimination.

“Funding and services for Native American child welfare systems have to be equal to mainstream child welfare programs,” Cross said.

Cross advocates for a culturally based child welfare approach that is therapeutic. He said teaching, counseling, encouragement and coaching is needed, “that increases confidence, empowers and motivates families and reduces dependence.”

He read a list of terms that promote the healing he was stressing in his talk: love, culture, hope, safety, gratitude, respect, laughter, medicine, truth, service to others, tears, stories, honesty, generosity, spirituality, courage, wisdom and meaningful work.

“The very core of our existence as Indigenous Nations is our love for one another,” he said.

Cross is also the author of “Positive Indian Parenting” and co-author of “Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care.”

“Treat every child and family as if they are essential to the collective wellbeing of our communities, nations and cultures,” Cross said in closing remarks. “Use yourself and your job to promote healing and be therapeutic, and you will make child welfare good medicine.”

Other sessions that took place on the first day of the conference included:

  • Family Healing to Wellness Courts and Active Efforts,” by Carrie Garrow and Lauren van Schilfgaarde.
  • “Working with Substance-Abusing Families,” by Cross.
  • “Promising Practices in Tribal-State Child Welfare Collaborations,” by David Simmons.

More information is available at