State health secretary speaks on campus at Indian Child Welfare Gathering

Department of Health and Human Service’s Kody Kinsley touts programs helping children in underserved groups, says more can be done

As part of its ongoing partnership with North Carolina’s Commission of Indian Affairs and the state’s American Indian leadership groups, Campbell University on June 27 hosted the state’s eighth annual Indian Child Welfare Gathering, a conference to discuss and promote programs that support the safety, health and spiritual strength of children of indigenous families. 

Delivering the keynote address daylong event was Kody Kinsley, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Kinsley spoke of the mission of DHHS and how that mission aligns with the goals a groups like the National Indian Child Welfare Association, which supports tribes nationwide in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. 

Kinsley said that understanding the state’s diversity is key to improving the health and wellbeing of the state as a whole. 

“We know that our Native American population has disproportionate [negative] health outcomes,” Kinsley said. “We know we have a disproportionate impact on child welfare in these spaces. If we take a step back, look at our child welfare system and we see that it’s not performing well in certain places, then folks, we don’t have a system at all.”

According to the nonprofit Annie E. Case Foundation, nearly a third of all Native American children in the U.S. were living in poverty in 2022 (nearly double the national rate). Roughly 43 percent of those children lived in families whose parents did not have secure, full-time employment, and almost half of fourth graders from that group were considered “chronically absent” from their schools that year. 

And according to the nonprofit group Partnership with Native Americans, only 16 percent of Native Americans hold a college degree, and many Native students believe college is not an option for them. 

North Carolina is home to more than 130,000 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, the second largest tribal population east of the Mississippi River. In this state, nearly 18 percent of American Indians live in poverty, the highest of any race group (and higher than the state average of 11 percent). 

Kinsley said if one part of a program is underperforming, then the program as a whole is underperforming, comparing it to an airport that can’t guarantee everybody gets to their destination. 

“Can you imagine if certain routes just crashed from time to time?” he said. “Like that route between St. Louis and Raleigh, what if it always went down? The other ones are fine, but this one is always a problem. Would you have faith in that system? If certain parts of a system don’t perform enough, then nothing can be trusted. And that is why for me, it is so important that we hone in with laser-like vision on the areas where we have some of our greatest disparities. It’s the right thing to do for those people. It’s also the right thing to do to raise the bar for the entire system.”

Kinsley said there are more than 10,500 children and teens currently in foster care in North Carolina, and a disproportionate number of those children are Native American. He said he’s proud his office was able to expand access to kinship care — matching children with relatives or close friends rather than strangers — and has fought to create regional child welfare specialists. 

“There’s evidence — and this is something I feel like this room knows firsthand — that family and kin are at the core of health and well-being,” he said. 

Kinsley also touted the state’s expansion of Medicaid access and how that has helped underserved populations. “Healthy families are the best thing for healthy kids,” he said. “Breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and lack of health care means investing in the resources people need to make them healthier.”

Kinsley’s visit on campus and the daylong conference mark another step in Campbell University’s growing partnership with the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs and the state’s indigenous tribes. In 2023, the University launched the American Indian Leadership Development Program to provide leadership training for American Indian tribal members across the state. The training initiative is intended to help develop up-and-coming leaders of area tribes so that Native national building will continue.