Attachment Theory: A Barrier for Indigenous Children Involved with Child Protection

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Jul 19;19(14):8754. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19148754.


Background: Attachment theory is an established theoretical understanding of the intimate relationships between parental figures and children. The theory frames the ways in which a child can be supported to develop within a secure base that prepares them for adulthood, including entering into and sustaining intimate relationships. The theory, built on the work of John Bowlby following World War II, has extensive literature supporting its application across multiple cultures and nations, although its roots are heavily tied to Eurocentric familial understandings. However, the theory has also been heavily criticized as not being appropriate for child intervention decision-making. Further, its application to Indigenous caregiving systems is also under question. Yet courts rely heavily on applying the theory to questions of sustaining Indigenous children in non-Indigenous care when return to biological parents is deemed impossible.

Methods: This article draws upon the consistent arguments used in leading Canadian child welfare legal decisions and case examples to show how Attachment Theory is applied relative to Indigenous children and families.

Results: Attachment Theory drawing upon Eurocentric framing, and as applied in Canadian child protection systems, as seen in precedent court decisions, is given priority over living in culture. This occurs even though the research reviewed has shown that the traditional dyadic version of the theory is not valid for Indigenous peoples.

Conclusions: While all children will attach to a caregiver or caregiving system, such as kinship or community, leading legal decisions in Canada tend to rely on Eurocentric versions of the theory, which is contrary to the best interests of Indigenous children. Child protection needs to reconsider how attachment can be used from appropriate cultural lenses that involve the communal or extended caregiving systems common to many Canadian Indigenous communities. Child protection should also recognize that there is not a pan-Indigenous definition of attachment and child-rearing, so efforts to build working relationships with various Indigenous communities will be needed to accomplish culturally informed caregiving plans. In addition, continued advocacy in Canada is needed to have child protection decision-making conducted by the Indigenous communities, as opposed to Eurocentric provincial or territorial agencies.

Keywords: Indigenous child welfare; Indigenous parenting; attachment theory; best interests of the Indigenous child; child welfare.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Canada
  • Child
  • Child Rearing
  • Child Welfare*
  • Family*
  • Humans
  • Population Groups

Grant support

This research received no external funding.