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Jill Kehaulani Esch
Jill Kehaulani Esch

2021 Diversity & Inclusion: Jill Kehaulani Esch

Minnesota Ombudsperson for American Indian Families 

Minnesota, a state that has historically taken pride in ranking high in quality-of-life measures, also leads the nation in one not-so-desirable category.

The state ranks first in the number of American Indian children removed from their families by child protection agencies, according to government data cited by Jill Kehaulani Esch, the state’s ombudperson for American Indian families.

Since her appointment to the position in 2013, Esch has monitored cases to ensure the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA) are followed.

A Native Hawaiian who came to Minnesota in 2000 to attend law school, Esch investigates complaints of noncompliance with the ICWA, MIFPA and child protection rules and policies. She also collaborates with tribes, agencies, counties, community organizations, courts, schools and other organizations to improve outcomes for American Indian families.

A graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Esch said problems are often caused by those who do not know the law passed in 1978 to protect the rights of Indian children and families: The Indian Child Welfare Act.

“If everyone followed the law and did what they are supposed to, Indian children would not be removed from their families to the degree they are. Then, Minnesota would no longer lead the nation in that category,” she said, emphasizing the need to include parents and other families members in the decision-making process on where children should be placed when they need to be removed from their homes.

When Esch encounters parents’ attorneys who don’t know the law well, she encourages parents “to reach out to me so I can provide them information and resources [the law doesn’t permit her to provide legal advice].” She sometimes fields as many as 20 calls a day from Indian parents seeking help.

An active member of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), in 2017, Esch received NICWA’s Member of the Year Award. Since 2017, she has co-chaired the Children and Families Chapter for the United States Ombudsman Association.

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