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Staff Highlight: Matthew Sam Thornhill

A group of Native fathers sitting around a drum

Matthew Sam Thornhill LMSW (Enrolled member of the Red Lake band of Ojibwe) has a BA in social work and minor in American Indian Studies, and Master’s degree in Social Work with a focus on Policy Development and Program Administration with emphasis on the Indian Child Welfare Act. He has been a social worker serving Native children and Families since 1997. He currently serves as the Program Manager for the ICW Foster Care Program at United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.   

What lead you to come to Daybreak Star & work with United Indians? 

I come from a place with really vibrant Native Urban Indian communities, I feel like urban Indian communities are unique and there’s a lot of similarities between city of Seattle and Minneapolis. I thought it was a great opportunity, so I thought I’d give it a shot and here I am! I’ve been here since April.  

How would you describe the FC program? 

As resilient & growing. The foster care program itself has struggled greatly through the pandemic. Quarantine and the danger of COVID complications provided an atmosphere where families feared allowing people in their home. As a foster parent you not only welcome a child in need shelter into your home, you also invite social workers, therapists and other supporting professionals into your home and world. A lot of CPAs (Child Placing Agencies) struggled in the pandemic to recruit and maintain family foster care licenses. This, unfortunately provided a environment where many foster families allowed their licenses to expire, and provided a much smaller group of families who were willing and capable of providing foster care to children in need.  

The ICW foster care program survived the pandemic and is dedicated to recruiting, licensing, training, and supportive Native American foster families. Our program provides training and resources to ICW foster families with the goal of limiting the number of placements children experience. It also helps to create healthy environments for Native American children to grow and develop when they are not able to be with their family of origin. Our program works to connect families with cultural support, community events, and culturally specific trainings that impact the quality of care for Native American children.        

What are your current challenges? How could the community support these challenges? 

Native American children are overrepresented in juvenile justice and foster care system. American Indian’s are four times more likely that their non-native counterparts to have their children removed from their care and placed into foster care. Statistically speaking, when children are placed into foster care they experience higher rates of poverty, mental health issues, incarceration, un-planned pregnancy, and domestic violence. Given that Native American children are four times as likely to be placed in foster care, there is a direct correlation to struggles later on in life. This really shows the importance of protecting American Indian children in foster care, and allowing tribes to have a say in what happens to its community members involved in the juvenile justice system.  The Indian child welfare act was passed in November of 1978, this law was passed to protect Native children from an oppressive child welfare system. Before 1978, 80 percent of Native American families living on reservations lost at least one child to the foster care system. This law also gives guidelines for governmental entities who are responsible for working with Native children involved in the juvenile justice system.  

The ICW foster care program provides our community with the ability to recruit community members who have the ability and desire to provide safe and stable homes to children in need. If children are able to stay in their same communities, schools, or even families; the impact of living away from their parents is significantly lessened.  

19th century German American psychological theorist Erick Erickson proposed that throughout the human life cycle, we have eight stages of psychosocial development. Each of these stages have a primary developmental goal that we must negotiate before we can move on to the next stage. When children are separated from their family and community of origin, they are put at a huge developmental disadvantage that will impact that child for the rest of their live and similarly impact their descendants. Allowing children access to cultural resources and support from a group that they identify gives these children a much better chance at healthy development and increases chances of successful independent living as an adult. 

What is meaningful for you about this work?  

I got my BA & MS in Social Work from Augsburg college in Minneapolis, MN. I have been a Social worker since 1997, licensed social worker since 2004.  So, my whole career, which is almost 30 years, I’ve only spent 3-4 not working with Native children and families. As a professional I have been fortunate to work in the twin cities Native American community in serval different roles, I have been a ICWA Child protection social worker, Tribal social worker, school counselor, runaway and homeless shelter staff, Program developer, and ICWA Trainor. This has allowed me to participate in community healing and advocacy the individual, mezzo, and macro policy levels. I have worked in community-based non-profits, and  worked for the largest county in the state of Minnesota as an indigenous social worker advocating for our children. This work is hard but essential to ensure the health and safety of Native American children and families.  By being a part of our foster care program, it gives people the opportunities to become familiar with our programs and to be a part of this historical organization with a Pow Wow, a sweat lodge, traditional medicines, traditional foods, a knowledge base, and elders – people can come that might not have had exposure to any of that. By not having exposure, sometimes Native kids get bad information or have a lack of info and are forced to piece it together themselves. Kids, families, communities need a place where people can learn the truth about where they are from and have pride in participating in things that are their culture, where they can have Naamadji, an Ojibwe word for honor, respect, and dignity.  

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