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The nut graph could wait until I heard from Native mothers caught in the child welfare system

The nut graph could wait until I heard from Native mothers caught in the child welfare system

Picture of Jessica Washington
Teresa Nord, a Navajo and Hopi Indian descendant, lost custody of her daughter after she was removed by child protective service
Teresa Nord, a Navajo and Hopi Indian descendant, lost custody of her daughter after she was removed by child protective services in Minnesota.
(Photo by Jessica Washington/The Fuller Project)

In her darkest imagination, the phantom hands of child protective service workers knock against Teresa Nord’s front door. “I live with this constant fear… that they’re just gonna one day knock on my door,” I remember her telling me during our first conversation. 

We wouldn’t meet in person for a few more months, but her fear came across clearly over the phone. She’d been sober for years, she had a good job, and she’d been diligent about keeping up with her daughter’s therapy. But the idea of social workers taking her daughter, as they had years prior, haunted her. 

“I call it child protection PTSD,” she said. 

In 2015, Nord temporarily lost custody of her eldest daughter after she reached out to a social worker to report that her daughter had been the victim of abuse. At the time she was studying to be a social worker and thought that if she asked for help, she’d receive it. Instead, her daughter was immediately removed from her home, and Nord didn’t regain custody of her for three years. 

Teresa Nord is one of the many Native American mothers, activists, and experts I spoke to for my reporting on Minnesota’s child welfare system and its impact on Native communities in the state. Her story is emblematic of the types of cases that disproportionately result in the removal of Native children from their families. 

In Minnesota Native children make up less than 2% of the population, but make up nearly 24% of the state’s foster care population, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. 

My series also centers the historical parallels between the modern child welfare system and older systems that resulted in the mass separation of Native children from their families, such as the boarding school system. 

I became interested in this story early last year while reporting on a separate juvenile justice story. I spoke to two advocates at the Minnesota Legal Rights Center, who told me if I wanted to understand what was going wrong with the juvenile justice system, I had to look at the foster care system. They then brought my attention to the incredibly disproportionate number of Native children in the foster care system in Minnesota. 

I originally focused my reporting on Native girls and how the juvenile justice system and the foster care system were related. However, I quickly realized that finding reliable data that combined race, gender, and age would be incredibly difficult. 

Data issues weren’t the only reason I decided to change directions and focus on mothers. In researching this story, I was able to find recent reporting on Native children and juvenile justice issues, and stories on discrimination in the foster care system. However, I found it harder to find narrative and data-based long-form reporting focused exclusively on Native Mothers and their experiences with the child welfare system. That’s why after speaking with my editor, I decided to focus on mothers instead of girls. 

When I began to talk to experts and advocates on the ground, the connection between the modern child welfare system and the history of policies that lead to the mass separation of Native families became an incredibly clear through line. Many of the mothers I spoke with had family members in boarding schools or had been affected by the boarding school system. 

To stay on track while allowing myself to be open to change, I set general deadlines in a Google doc to keep myself on a schedule. One of the speakers in our fellowship told us about this method of staying on track, and I found it incredibly useful. 

Admittedly, when I first started the fellowship, I didn’t put a lot of time or thought into the schedule. But as time went on, I realized how important the schedule was to controlling my anxiety around a major project. This was my first time working on an investigation of this size, and having reasonable deadlines helped me have the confidence to allow the story to flow naturally because I could confirm that I was on track.  

For example, I wrote on my schedule that I didn’t want to have my nut graph finalized until after I got back from my 10-day reporting trip. This meant that I could use my time in Minnesota to learn what was happening on the ground and how it fits into an overarching story. I came prepared with pre-interviews and data under my belt, but the story came to me over the 10 days I spent on my reporting trip. 

Ultimately, I developed my core thesis and the outline for my story on one of the last days of my trip, about two months before the story’s publishing deadline.

As a non-Native reporter, I think that ensuring the story came from the voices of Native people on the ground as opposed to my own internal narrative was very important. The way I structured my time allowed me to give the story the complexity it deserved and avoid easy stereotypes and tropes that have often been presented by non-Native media sources. 

Although I found the timeline invaluable, I did face a few disruptions to my plan. In early November, just as I was about to start writing, I caught COVID-19. Getting sick not only threw off my writing schedule for this project but also caused me to become behind on my day-to-day stories. It took me a while to get fully back on track with everything I worked on this year.

Despite the minor bumps in the road, at the end of this reporting project, I feel proud of the work that I’ve done and the incredibly brave voices of Native mothers in Minnesota, like Teresa Nord, that I’ve been able to lift-up.

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.

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