Twice a week for five to six hours each day, Amy Hamid sits at a conference table with women old and young, some raising their grandchildren, some hoping to get their kids back from child protection, and many with so much sorrow from their past it seems etched in their faces.
In each woman, Hamid sees the face of her own mother, who grew up abused and neglected in foster homes, and her grandmother, who drank herself to death after she came home from a boarding school.
As a case manager at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis, Hamid helps women who often grew up in troubled homes, turned to drugs and alcohol, then inflicted that same chaos on their own children.
Hamid, 41, could easily have been one of those mothers. Instead, she broke the cycle and has committed herself to help other women do the same.
While state officials are unable to explain why so many Indian children are placed in foster care, Indian leaders, child welfare experts and parents who have gone through the system point to the history of atrocities against Indians and bias in Minnesota’s child protection system.
In the 19th century, the federal government began placing Indian children into boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them into white society. Generations of Indians were brought up far from their families, sexually and physically abused and vulnerable to infectious diseases.
By 1974, 25 to 35 percent of Indian children were in foster homes, adoptive homes or institutions.
That explains the high rates of poverty and drug abuse in Indian communities today, said Tonya Long, board chair for the Minnesota Ombudsperson for American Indian Families. “The drug epidemic is not the cause of the disparities. It’s a symptom,” she said. The real cause? “The trauma of the assimilation policies.”
Arthur Blume, president of the Society of Indian Psychologists, said while historical trauma is real, it’s not “meant to be an excuse that sanctions the behavior, by any means.”
That’s how Hamid sees her work. She teaches women to confront their pasts while taking responsibility for their lives.
At one session, Hamid asks: Can someone love you if they hit you?
A gray-haired woman, new to the group, believes so.
“That’s not love,” Hamid tells her.
“Well, it’s normal,” she replies.
Other women speak up. “No, it’s not.”
That’s part of being a victim of domestic violence, Hamid tells her group. And that violence is a cycle.
The women come to Hamid through referrals from parole, probation and treatment centers, and veterans of her program.
Nobody is ordered by the court to be here, one of the reasons Hamid believes the program is successful. The women want to be here.
“When I interviewed for this job, I sat there crying. These are my relatives,” Hamid said. “To me, that’s my mom. That’s my daughter.”