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Tuesday, April 11, 2023

A Case Before the U.S. Supreme Court Could Surge the Psychiatric Labelling and Drugging of Native American Foster Youth

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f the Brackeen v. Halland case currently challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 before the U.S. Supreme Court is successful, Native children are more likely to be placed with non-Native foster parents, and from there, face a surge in psychiatric labeling and drugging.

Tribes across the U.S. are outraged by the attempt to dismantle ICWA, and a “think tank” was recently formed in California to respond to what seems a foundational threat to community sovereignty, beginning with who controls Native child welfare decisions.  It’s the latest in a battle as old as the United States: White Christian evangelicals fighting for the right to take Native children away from family, tribe, and culture, and re-educate them, no matter the harms—and its outcome will determine whether more Native youth are exposed to psychiatric drugs.

Chad Brackeen and his wife, Jennifer, lead plaintiffs, are White, and according to a 2019 interview with The New York Times, also dedicated members of the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which they attend twice a week, and through which they first became inspired to adopt. They began as foster parents before successfully adopting a young Dine (Navajo) boy, and then mounting efforts to adopt his sister. They contend they are being racially discriminated against by ICWA’s mandates favoring a great aunt of both of these children, who has stepped forward from their tribal community seeking to adopt the sister.


But what about the contention that ICWA’s dismantling will also create a surge in Native foster youth being psychiatrically labeled and drugged?  It’s frankly impossible to find adequate information bearing on this topic because the U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS), primary purveyor of behavioral health services in Indian Country, has never been accountable to publicly report prescription rates and the types of psychiatric drugs it dispenses.

Yet as I detail in my new book, Coyote’s Swing, IHS has for decades been very involved in psychiatric labeling and drugging. In 2013, for example, the agency attributed 850,000 of its outpatient visits and 5,000 of its inpatient stays to a “mental disorder.” And 10 percent of the services IHS provided that same year to children and young adults aged 5 to 24 years had “mental disorder” listed as the “primary reason.”


The history of EuroAmerican culture in North America is rife with the theft of Native children and their childhoods and is both the root cause and effect behind today’s Native foster care system.

According to a recent joint report by Pro Publica and NBC News, 3.5 million homes are searched annually by state child welfare agencies investigating child maltreatment.  Most searches happen without a warrant because caregivers may not know their rights or are intimidated by aggressive caseworkers pounding on their doors.  Once inside, these workers may push their way into a caregiver’s kitchen, go through the refrigerator, sift through trash, and inspect bedrooms and bathrooms while trying to observe children present in the home.  Only five percent of such coercive searches result in actual findings of child maltreatment.



Using a traditional Yakama tale as a motif, Coyote’s Swing combines the author’s firsthand experiences as a consulting psychologist with rare history and sociocultural critique, revealing how the U.S. mental health system reframes Native American reactions to oppression and marginalization into “mental disorders” and “mental illness,” and how the Indian Health Service’s contemporary practices echo historical injustices.

“In the IHS, dissension is often suppressed as blasphemy and whistleblowers are rarely tolerated. Walker is to be commended for his thorough research and timely recommendations for reform of the agency’s delivery of mental health services in Indian County…I join him in praying that this period of tribal history comes to an end.”—Toobshudud Jack Fiander (Yakama), attorney


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