Skip to main content.

One reporter’s journey to salvage series on childhood adversity in Indian Country

One reporter’s journey to salvage series on childhood adversity in Indian Country

Picture of Debra Krol
Flickr photo

“I have bad news for you,” my editor said during a phone call in late August 2017. “We’re closing in two weeks.” The outlet, Indian Country Media Network, had agreed to publish a three-story series on how adverse childhood experiences and “toxic stress” were affecting Native American communities, and how some organizations’ programs are providing preventive measures. Those articles were at the heart of my project for the Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 National Fellowship.

Those words from my editor were the start of a months-long agonizing process of pitching, rejection and ultimately revamping the project.

I had been intrigued by the concept of ACEs and how elevated, sustained levels of stress hormones —the product of childhood exposure to food and housing insecurity, inadequate parenting, violence in the home and in the neighborhood and other such factors — can stunt cognitive and physical growth for a lifetime. Adults who experienced childhood adversity often find themselves struggling to succeed in school, manage money, avoid entanglement in substance abuse or get a good-paying job. In turn, they also are more likely to lack parenting skills to guide their own kids away from the same dysfunction that has afflicted their own lives.

Childhood adversity is particularly pernicious in Indian Country, where more than 500 years of colonialism, slavery, genocide, institutionalized marginalization, war and the Indian boarding school era have eviscerated many tribal communities.

Far from the European model of nurturing institutions for scions of families with means, the Indian boarding school system in particular wreaked havoc on tribal life. From the late 1800s till the latter years of the 20th century, Native children as young as 5 were taken from their families and housed in remote military school-like settings. They were subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse, received in most cases only a rudimentary education and were forbidden to speak their native language or honor their traditions. They didn’t see their families for years. As a result, many children who attended these boarding schools were scarred by the experience, and many of the adults in turn lived dysfunctional lives, starting an intergenerational, downward cycle of adversity in their own children’s lives.

I read the research and realized that I had stumbled upon the science behind what Native people call intergenerational trauma — a form of PTSD that can be attributed to several generations of ACE-induced chaos in tribal communities. Left untreated, ACEs contribute to a host of social ills, including poverty, substance abuse, intergenerational child sexual abuse and a host of other woes for tribes still struggling to regain their former prosperity and community wellness. The Economic Policy Institute found that 33 percent of all Native American children — the highest proportion in the U.S. — live in poverty, and the National Congress of American Indians says that 39 percent of all Native American women are victims of domestic violence.

Informed by the new research, behavioral health providers and social service agencies serving Native Americans are turning more attention to building resiliency in children and supporting families to become happy, healthy and productive as well. My series aimed to showcase both the issue and solutions.

But my reporting plan took a left hook from Indian Country Media Network’s closure. Not only were nearly a dozen fulltime staff due to lose their jobs, but nearly 50 freelancers like myself had to scramble to find new anchor clients. In the gut-churning weeks following ICMN’s demise, I worked to find new clients and bolster existing relationships. But, the ACEs and toxic stress storylines were still weighing on my mind, and I took a deep breath and started pitching editors, emphasizing the Native angle.

None bit. Some editors replied and said that similar articles were in their production schedule; others simply ghosted me.

One positive development is that toxic stress and ACEs have gained national attention in the two years since I first started reporting the issue. Early childhood agencies such as Arizona’s First Things First and First 5 California are raising awareness of the issue with their partners, and more editorial space is devoted to childhood trauma and preventive measures. Even Oprah Winfrey has spoken on the issue, which makes for a crowded field.

I knew then that I would have to rethink the project and reduce the scope a bit.

After talking with some of my sources, I decided upon a segment of Native children at particularly high risk for a lifetime of physical and behavioral woes: foster children. I found that Native American and Alaska Native children are taken from their parents and placed in foster homes at a rate 2.7 times greater than the mainstream population, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Although the Indian Child Welfare Act, known at ICWA, requires Native kids be placed with their respective tribal communities, foster homes are in short supply. Many families simply take their grandchildren, niece or nephews, or other related children into their own homes, which is a traditional practice in Indian Country. However, since state welfare agencies require these homes to be licensed to the same stringent standards as off-reservation homes, many tribal families can’t meet those requirements, and so a vital source of support becomes unavailable.

Also, I found that the shortage of Native foster homes leads to non-Indian families trying to adopt foster children who they have taken in and bonded with. Those cases have proven to be wrenching for all involved and provide opportunities for groups who oppose the ICWA law to mount legal challenges. But those challenges ignore the history behind ICWA’s enactment, which was meant to prevent the wholesale theft of Native kids (adopted by white families) that used to occur. Those placements were at times extremely traumatic: I learned that foster children placed in non-Native homes were “at great risk for experiencing psychological trauma leading to long-term emotional and psychological problems as adults” after losing cultural and family connections that keep kids resilient and grounded, according to Minnesota’s Department of Human Services.

Everyone agrees that foster children have, in many cases, been through hell and need a host of treatment and support services. One non-Native foster mother told of how her child came to her with extreme symptoms of trauma. After nearly a year, he’s finally beginning to show progress, yet the going can be rough. For instance, the child had severe separation issues. The foster mom said that the boy would cry and stick his fingers under the door when she had to use the bathroom.

Finally, after a few months of redirecting my reporting and many pitches to publications, I landed an assignment with VICE News to write about the Native American foster home shortage and the continuing need for care for children suffering from the worst cases of ACEs and toxic stress.

But, I wanted to do more: I also wanted to showcase solutions to keeping families healthy and reducing the need for foster care. I reached out to two Phoenix-based social service and substance abuse treatment organizations, the Phoenix Indian Center and Native American Connections, that work together to provide family support that is vital to protecting and sustaining Native children. I was able to secure an article in the Phoenix Business Journal about their work. The article wasn’t a paid story, but I had achieved two goals: explaining the issues and showing solutions to preventing ACEs and toxic stress in Native kids.

The lesson I learned: Always have a back-up plan when these big reporting projects go south — because sooner or later, it’s bound to happen. I just hope it doesn’t happen again any time soon.

[Photo by Rennett Stowe via Flickr.]


Picture of

I loved your article, and it is something I needed to read right now! I am not a writer, but I have been providing speech-language services to native children for over 30 years. Poverty is the number 1 cause of hopelessness. I found out yesterday, that a child I served 25 years ago lost a ten year child to suicide. It is such a vicious cycle, and I know there must be a way to instill "hope" and "happiness" back into our communities. I think you and your ability to "write" is a start. We need a book, like Anna-Age 8!


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon