Violence against Indigenous Children, Youth, and Families Essay

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The United Nations estimates that there are 370 million Indigenous peoples living in over 70 countries worldwide. Collectively, Indigenous peoples represent the vast majority of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity as over 80% of the languages spoken today are Indigenous. Indigenous knowledge and resources have served to benefit peoples of all cultures and languages, and yet Indigenous children face pervasive rights violations to a degree not experienced by other children. Violence against Indigenous children, youth, and families is a complex issue. Although interfamilial violence occurs, data regarding the extent and nature for the problem are largely unavailable. Existing data indicate that Indigenous children, youth, and families are more likely to be victims of violence at the hands of non-Indigenous perpetrators both inside and outside the family. Indigenous children are more likely to be maltreated by governmental social services or justice systems as well. For example, in the United States juvenile detention setting, Indigenous youth are more likely to be kept in isolation, placed in restraints, and controlled with pepper spray than other youth. In other parts of the world, Indigenous children are still being pressed into early military service, sold into slavery for sex trafficking, or targeted as victims of genocide. Overall, experts believe that there is widespread underreporting of the rates of violence against Indigenous children.

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, there is very little information that specifically describes violence against the Indigenous. The Sub Group on Indigenous Children and Youth for the NGO Group on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations, found that there is no international systematic collection of information on Indigenous child rights. Those interested in understanding the international experience of violence against Indigenous children must search for information on a country-by-country basis. In developed countries, child maltreatment data may be collected in a way that allows researchers to examine the specific experiences of distinct groups of Indigenous children. The availability of credible information describing the experience of Indigenous children varies widely across the world with the most credible information generated by Indigenous communities, Indigenous non-governmental organizations, or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which works only in developing countries.

An analysis of available research on violence against Indigenous children strongly suggests that structural violence is the most potent and prolific source of violence experienced by Indigenous children and families. Examples of structural violence are racism, discrimination, active colonization by states, dislocation from traditional lands, expropriation of resources, and poverty. Structural risk may manifest at the level of the family, but is sourced at a societal level. In fact, neglect related to structural risk is the leading cause of the removal of Indigenous children from their families in Canada, the United States, and Australia. The UN Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children has recognized the importance of addressing structural violence against children, particularly with regard to vulnerable and marginalized children including Indigenous children. The question of how to address structural violence against Indigenous children within countries is complicated by the fact that Indigenous peoples must often appeal for resources to the very governments that are directly or indirectly contributing to the structural violence against Indigenous children. Even wealthy countries are often cited by the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child for inadequately supporting Indigenous children and youth.

Experts are increasingly recognizing that one of the precursors to improving outcomes for Indigenous children is a movement of reconciliation. In this context, reconciliation is not intended to overcome or conquer cultural difference but, rather, to create societal values and practices that result in Indigenous and nonIndigenous children respecting difference and coexisting with all their respective rights recognized. One such movement was initiated by Indigenous and nonIndigenous child welfare organizations in Canada and in the United States. Motivated by the systematic failure of child welfare systems to adequately protect Indigenous children and families, Blackstock, Cross, George, Brown, and Formsma synthesized the discussions of over 200 experts in Indigenous child welfare to create the following five interdependent principles, called touchstones, to guide reconciliation in child welfare:

Self-Determination—the recognition of Indigenous communities as the best decision makers for Indigenous children

Culture and Language—affirming that Indigenous cultural values underpin the most promising interventions for Indigenous children

Holism—the need to meet the needs of the child in the context of his or her family and community

Structural Interventions—developing meaningful interventions in structural sources of violence and neglect

Nondiscrimination—recognition of Indigenous knowledge and addressing racism and inequitable resource distributions

These touchstones are intended to apply to all aspects of child welfare, including research, policy, practice, and evaluation. They establish a new worldview upon which to base the profession that not only better reflects Indigenous cultures, but also better reflects research. For example, outcomes for Indigenous children are found to be much better when Indigenous communities take the lead role in designing and implementing adequately resourced programs.

The structural violence against Indigenous children, youth, and families has far-reaching negative consequences. If left unchecked, it threatens the survival of the most diverse peoples of the world. Increased recognition and adequate and sustained support for culturally based services will help Indigenous children and families to address family-based violence, peer-based violence, criminal violence, state sponsored violence, and societal violence.


  1. Blackstock, C., Cross, T., George, J., Brown, I., & Formsma, J. (2006). Reconciliation in child welfare: Touchstones of hope for Indigenous children, youth and families. Ottawa, ON: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
  2. Earle, K. A., & Cross, A. (2001). Child abuse and neglect among American Indian/Alaska Native children: An analysis of existing data. Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs.
  3. Rae, J., & The Sub Group on Indigenous Children and Youth. (2006). Rights and reality: A report on indigenous children and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ottawa, ON: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
  4. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (2003). Chairperson’s summary: High-level panel and dialogue on Indigenous children and youth. New York: United Nations Economic and Social Council.

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