Proving Indian identity, a sometimes-difficult task, is a crucial challenge when dealing with Native children in the foster-care system. To be eligible for Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) services a child must be a member of a federally recognized tribe or eligible for enrollment, and that’s where some county ICWA services in Colorado have had problems.
Jill E. Tompkins, Penobscot, clinical professor of law and director of the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado, says most of the problems relate primarily to improper documentation and poor record-keeping by child-welfare workers. “Proving that a child who comes into the system is Indian poses a problem,” says Nancy Lucero, Choctaw, an assistant professor who works in ICWA and child welfare research at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “Identifying Indian children is a complex task.”
ICWA defines an Indian child as an individual who is unmarried and under the age of 18, is the biological child of a tribal member and is either a member of a federally recognized tribe or eligible for membership.
Documenting that all the requests to confirm eligibility have been sent to tribes is a major challenge, and records must be kept of their responses as well. Colorado handles at least 1,000 ICWA cases a year, and there are many ways a case can go wrong. In one instance, several siblings who have one parent in common were enrolled by a tribe, but one of the children was refused enrollment for no apparent reason. Lucero says tribes can be overwhelmed with hundreds of requests each week relating to whether children are eligible or not.
Another problem, Lucero notes, is that “the courts have so much power” in making sometimes-arbitrary distinctions. “In Denver County, judges were deciding that it’s not considered an ICWA case until the tribe says it is enrolled or eligible for enrollment. The judge might not accept enrollment evidence from the family” but instead insist that it come directly from the tribe.
Another big problem in Colorado is that there aren’t enough people willing to run foster homes or be foster parents. There are currently 800 Native children waiting to be placed in the state, says Grant Davis, Tlingit, a foster care recruiter for Denver Human Services. “Being Native, it’s hard [for some people] to get into [providing foster care],” he says. “Some people have misdemeanors or other crimes on their record so they [wrongly] think they might fail the background check. Or they may take the first step but don’t follow through. They have to take a class, then another class—it’s a long process.”
At a recent kinship pow wow a few Natives showed some interest in offering foster care, Davis says, but he didn’t know if they would follow through. He believes “Indian people are losing their culture and depending on white values,” contradicting the Native practice in which “we take care of our own.” In that loss of culture, he says, “kinship is going by the wayside.”
This year, for the first time in a long time, Mother’s Day didn’t bring with it the painful unknowns for Jeanne Winslow and Rachel Banks Kupcho of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Jeanne and her daughter Kupcho met for the second time last October, more than 35 years after Winslow gave her newborn up for adoption. “The day I got the call was the day I knew my life had changed forever,” says Winslow. That call on a cool October day carried the news that her daughter had found her and wanted to meet.
Their reunion was not a made-for-TV event filled with balloons and flowers. Winslow recalls that seeing her daughter for the first time in such a long time was quietly powerful, a bit like the first time she heard the drum and knew deep in her body that she was American Indian. Like Kupcho, Winslow was put up for adoption as a newborn and raised by non-Indians. Their story puts a quintessential Indian twist on the standard Mother’s Day tale of maternal perfection, and shows the inexorable pull of blood and spirit that so many Native people describe when they speak of wanting to know their culture.
I first met Kupcho in Minneapolis back in 2008 while doing a story about the challenges faced by American Indian adoptees who want learn more about their cultures and their birth parents. At the time, she knew only that her birth mother was Ojibwe from Minnesota. Her adoptive family was supportive and understanding of her efforts. A bright, confident young woman, Kupcho is convinced that without the unconditional love of her adoptive parents she would not have been strong enough to pursue her passion and calling of working to support the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). While working with the National Indian Child Welfare Association, she met Sandy White Hawk, executive director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute in Minneapolis. White Hawk, an adoptee herself, founded the organization to advocate for Native adoptees in accordance with ICWA and to help unite adoptees with their birth families, cultures and tribes. In October, they informed me that they had found Kupcho’s birth mother, Winslow, a children’s counselor living in Iowa.
Winslow and Kupcho, along with Kupcho’s 18-month-old daughter Mika, quickly arranged a meeting. Kupcho recalls that Winslow seemed to be in quite a hurry to meet her. She soon found out why. Winslow’s birth mother (and Kupcho’s grandmother), Audrey Banks, who Winslow had met 20 years earlier, was dying. Winslow immediately rushed everyone to her mother’s bedside. “There were four generations in that room meeting for the first time,” Winslow recalls. “That was the first thing Kupcho and I did together. It was the greatest privilege and honor to be there with her. It was a very healing experience. This has all been about circles connecting. At first, it was just my circle but now I see that so many others are interconnected.”
Kupcho didn’t know it at the time, but she had previously connected with her grandmother—Audrey was well known and respected in the Minneapolis Native community for her work helping social service agencies maintain compliance with ICWA. Like Kupcho, she earned a master’s degree in social work in order to better serve Native children. “There has definitely been something bigger at work in my life; there has been a path I am meant to walk,” Kupcho says of this coincidence.
In many ways, Audrey’s experience as a young Ojibwe woman may have helped set the direction of that path. Born on the Leech Lake reservation, she was sent to the Pipestone Indian boarding school at age 9 and remained there for the remainder of her childhood. After moving to Minneapolis she gave birth to three boys and three girls. According to her daughters, social workers from Catholic Charities showed up at her bedside after each birth, pressuring the single mother to give the girls up for adoption. “She said that she felt coerced by the social workers that said that the girls would have better lives if they were raised by white people,” recalls Bernadine Harroun, Audrey’s second daughter. “I think that influenced her decision to go into social work and help keep Indian kids with Indian families.”
Bernadine and her younger sister, Winslow were adopted by the same family and raised together. Bernadine initiated the search for Audrey and Winslow and was responsible for their first meeting in 1989. They learned that Audrey, all of her children and Kupcho all lived and grew up within 20 miles of each other.
“Most of the stories of Native adoptees finding their families are like miracles,” White Hawk says. The distinguishing factor for Native adoptees, according to White Hawk is that the children were prayed for by generations of parents who knew hard times were coming. “Native people have that spiritual pull, like a spiritual umbilical cord that compels us to seek out our families,” she says.
Many Native adoptees report that hearing the traditional drum often activates that spiritual pull. Indeed Winslow recalls the first time she heard the drum. “I heard it and I knew I was Indian. The drum goes to some place so deep,” she recalls. (She didn’t know it at the time, but her uncle, well-known activist Dennis Banks was one of the people at that drum. He was giving a presentation at Winslow’s suburban high school about the happenings at Wounded Knee.)
Except for the strange longing awakened in her by the drum, Winslow says life in her adoptive suburban home was good. Ironically, because of this positive experience, she was able to make the difficult decision to relinquish her own daughter for adoption. Newly independent and sexually inexperienced, she found herself pregnant at age 19. “I knew that I couldn’t give my daughter the chance she deserved unless I did something drastic,” she recalls.
With the support of her adoptive family, Winslow put Kupcho up for adoption. “Leaving the hospital without her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. Over time, however, she was at peace with her decision although birthdays, Christmas and Mother’s Day were hard. “I never stopped wondering about her,” says Winslow.
There was always a lingering, fear, too that Kupcho would be angry with her if and when they reconnected. She says, however, that her meetings with Kupcho and Mika have been smooth and joyous. She compares it to dancing in the circle for the first time with Audrey. “Somehow my feet knew what to do,” Winslow recalls.
“I can’t imagine the pain Winslow went through in making the brave choice to give me up for adoption. I give her tons of credit,” says Kupcho, adding that Winslow needn’t have feared she would be angry. “If anything her love gave me the wonderful life I have now. The home I was adopted into has afforded me the ability to do the work that I do.”
Kupcho is starting a new job with a non-profit organization that licenses foster homes for Native children. Her main focus is creating permanent, supportive homes. Although her adoptive placement was loving and good, advocating for a child to be in a loving home is not specific enough. “Being with family is ideal,” she says. “Love is not always enough. Going to the occasional pow wow is not enough. We need to know about our traditions and culture. Even knowing you’re Indian is not enough. With the experience of meeting my birth family, I understand this more fully.
“As a mother and as an adoptee I have a better sense of myself. I have a stronger, more confident gait. This is the only thing my adoptive parents haven’t been able to give me.”
Finding her birth mother, however, was not the whole key to Kupcho’s search. “I needed to know where I came from and make that tribal connection. When visiting the reservation I am suddenly among family and I feel good,” she says.
Both Kupcho and Winslow report that they are going forward with their new relationship without expectations and going with that process as it unfolds. Their first Mother’s Day was one of quiet joy. “I’m a mother, now I have somebody,” explains Winslow. “Plus it’s great to be a grandma.”
“Mother’s Day is definitely more complicated now, but only in my mind. I’m taking it as it comes,” says Kupcho, laughing.
Sandy White Hawk’s message for Mother’s Day and every day thereafter: “We need to encourage our birth mothers to forgive themselves and remember we wouldn’t be here without them. We need to tell them that regardless of the kinds of lives we have had, we can have good lives from this day forward and for that we are grateful.”
NOTE: This is an update to a 2010 story that was published on DailyYonder.com.
In 1978 Congress enacted on of the most sweeping statutes in he field of Indian law, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Prior to the ICWA, cases involving Indian children were resolved within the general framework of Indian law principles governing civil jurisdiction, that is, when all contacts were within Indian Country, tribal jurisdiction was exclusive, and when there were few reservation contacts, state courts possessed jurisdiction. This dominance of judge-made principles was altered by the ICWA, whose underlying premise was that Indian tribes as sovereign governments have a vital interest in any decision as to whether Indian children should be from their families. Upon enacting the ICWA, Congress declared that
it is the policy of this Nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.
The emphasis of the act was to make certain that the cultural values of Indian tribes were not denied the orphaned Indian child, and to further ensure that tribal government possessed the legal means for protecting its minor members. In so doing, Congress codified the disparate court decisions that had begun to form the body of Indian child welfare law, provided jurisdictional safeguards for tribal governments, and established an order of preference for the adoption and placement of Indian children. Congress specifically addressed its relationship with Indian tribes, Indian children, adn Indian culture when it acknowledged
that Congress, through statutes, treaties, and the general course of dealing with Indian tribes, has assumed the responsibility for the protection and preservation of Indian tribes; and that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes that their children; that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe and… that the states have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families.
The Supreme Court, in upholding the constitutionality of the ICWA, followed precedents established in earlier court cases that recognized the unique status of Indian tribes as semi-sovereign nations dependent on the United States for protection. In 1832, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall recognized American Indian tribes as “domestic, dependent nations” with full tribal sovereignty, having recognized territorial boundaries, within which their authority is subject only to congressional authority. This landmark legal case stated that “the treaties and laws of the United States contemplate the Indian territory as completely separated from that of the states and provide that all intercourse with them [the Indian nations] will be carried on exclusively by the government of the union.
More than one hundred years later, in August 1970, President Richard Nixon stated before Congress that
it is long past time that the Indian policies of the Federal government begin to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. The time has come to break decisively with the past and create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.
As the nation approaches the end of the twentieth century, and despite President Nixon’s admonition, the federal government still struggles with issues of extreme importance to American Indian people. One such question is, what entity will determine the future of Indian children who, through no fault of their own, enter into the Anglo American child-placement system? In this essay, I will address several questions arising from the passage of the ICWA, court cases, and presidential proclamations. Why did Congress recognize that Indian tribes require special treatment and continue to recognize statues and treaties made during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, most of which have been abrogated by the U.S. government? Why were American Indians, as an ethnic group, given special treatment at all? Why was the American Indian perceived differently and accorded special treatment and specific legislation? What was considered to be special about the Indian child? Why did Indian children need to be protected? From what, from whom, and why? why were Indian children singled out and not other children? Why does the United States Recognize the need for “the protection and preservation of Indian tribes and their resources”?
To answer these questions, I provide a brief but important review of the evolution of state policy toward the American Indian from the development of the you United States to the passage and implementation if the ICWA. I then answer the question, Who gets the Indian child?
(check out the article)
Today, the DR. PHIL Show will tell the story of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, the non-native adoptive parents of 3-year-old Veronica (Cherokee), who was removed from her home in South Carolina at the age of 2 this past New Year’s Eve to live with her biological father, Dusten Brown, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a neighboring city of the Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation.
The widely publicized and controversial custody case, which has been going on since 2009 when Veronica was four months old, has been heralded by some as a victory for the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Cherokee Nation, and for Veronica, who will remain with her family who have “a deeply embedded relationship” with their heritage, as the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling states.
But others have criticized the decision as destructive to the toddler and an injustice to the adoptive parents.
In a taped interview, the Capobiancos sat down with TV talk-show host Dr. Phil McGraw to share their anger and frustrations at losing Veronica and at the ICWA of 1978, which gives placement preference of adopted American Indian children first to family members, second to members of the same tribe and third to members of another tribe.
“The Child Welfare Act is destroying families,” Matt told Dr. Phil. “Veronica’s our daughter.” The couple was present in the delivery room for Veronica’s birth, and Matt cut the umbilical cord. “I just can’t put it into words how incredible it felt to have a little girl.”
Veronica’s birth mother, Christina Maldonado, signed the adoption papers for the Capobiancos to take Veronica without Brown’s consent. When Brown learned of the adoption, he immediately began pursuing custody of his daughter.
In a preview clip posted to the DR. PHIL Show website, Dr. Phil questioned Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, why the ICWA has the power to overrule a mother’s decision. “Does this mother need the permission of the tribe to do what she wants with the child if it’s not to the child’s detriment?”
Nimmo explained “…one of the concepts of the law is that the tribe has an interest in protecting its children.”
The ICWA was designed to preserve the relationship a child has with its relatives and its tribe, Craig Dorsay, a Portland, Oregon-based attorney who has worked on thousands of ICWA-related cases, explained to Indian Country Today Media Network. “In the South Carolina case, the tribe is painted as the villain,” Dorsay said. “But you have to remember the tribe is interested in the health and welfare of the child.”
Although non-native adoptive families can promise to expose children to ceremonies and culture, there is no substitute for immersion. “In the Indian community, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they all share equal responsibility for the child, and the child’s life is enriched by this,” Dorsay said.
Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, agrees that the ruling ensures Baby Veronica grows up surrounded by her culture and people and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. “I can’t say enough about the importance of a child’s rights throughout their lives,” Cross said. “These are things as simple as voting in tribal elections, running for office, taking advantage of tribal scholarships and benefits, participating in customary and ceremony rights, plus their relationships with extended families. It’s about a notion of a sense of belonging. Indian children are as tied to their extended families as they are to their parents. There’s a rich network of culture there, and that’s what we rely on for wellbeing.”
But tonight’s episode of the DR. PHIL Show paints the decision to remove Baby Veronica from the home of her adoptive parents as a heart-breaking “nightmare,” severing a young girl’s ties with the only caretakers she has ever known.
While Nimmo defends the purpose of the ICWA, she is repeatedly countered by Troy Dunn, host of the TV show The Locator, a non-native brother to an adopted American Indian man, and the person who pitched Dr. Phil to feature the story of Baby Veronica on the DR. PHIL Show.
While Nimmo is explaining the purpose of the ICWA, Dunn interrupts and alleges Veronica’s background is barely Indian.
“Have you told Dr. Phil how much of this child’s blood is actually Indian? Because I think we’re leading people to believe this is an Indian thing,” Dunn said.
“She is an Indian baby,” Nimmo replied.
“This child is more Hispanic than Indian, more white than Indian, more Asian almost than Indian,” Dunn charges. “There is like a drop of Indian blood in this child….” he said. “…[I]t’s a massive warning to any parent in America right now who’s considering adopting a child, because if there’s a drop of Indian blood in this child, this is a possibility, this event could happen to somebody else,” Dunn said. “Somebody from the tribe—not a birth parent—a tribal member can step up a make a claim, which is what drives some families into hiding.”
Nimmo clarified that the law applies to tribal citizens, not to native heritage. “It’s not about a drop of blood; this father is a citizen of the government. It’s not just if you have Indian in your background.”
The debate over the ICWA continued on the DR. PHIL Show with outside opinions in support and opposition to the act.
Lastly, Dr. Phil issues his opinion:
“To tear this child aware from y’all in an abrupt fashion like that, there’s no question that it was traumatic for her,” he told the Capobiancos. “There will be real issues for this child going forward. I will tell you, however, that research suggests long term that children can recover from this; children are resilient. She can have a happy and adjusted life in a new environment if in fact that environment is loving, nurturing and productive for her.”
Dr. Phil did suggest the couple should have permission to see Veronica. “The mature thing to do would be for her to have visitation; it puts the baby’s best interest above everyone else’s,” Dr. Phil said.
The Capobiancos, whose request for a rehearing in the custody case of Baby Veronica in South Carolina Supreme Court was denied on August 23, appealed on October 1 for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. They are still awaiting a response.
For local DR. PHIL Show channel and show times, visit drphil.com/shows/listing/.
So here’s what’s really ridiculous about this case, they never had the father’s permission. And even without the ICWA in most (if not all) jurisdictions this adoption still would not have been legal. They made this harder on Veronica by fighting for the last 20 months even though they knew the father had never actually surrendered his rights. They fought this case knowing full well that even without the ICWA, South Carolina adoption law & Oklahoma adoption law was not truly in their favor. Despite the hype the adoption was never finalized & they knew when she was 4 months old that they were acting in violation of the ICWA & that the mother hadn’t afforded him an opportunity to be part of this child’s life.
I’m an angry Indian,” Roger St. John, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, told the First Nations Repatriation Institute’s second annual adult adoptees summit. The elite panel included child-welfare specialists, judges, lawyers, community activists and scholars. The most important experts, according to the organization’s founder/director, Sandra White Hawk, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, were adult adoptees—such as St. John—who related their experiences at the three-day meeting at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in St. Paul.
“I’m more than glad to tell you I’m pissed off,” continued St. John, a 49-year-old truck driver with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I was the youngest of 16 children, grabbed at the age of 4, along with three older brothers—no paperwork, nothing. The other kids in the family escaped because they took off.” Soon, St. John and his siblings ended up in New York City at Thanksgiving time. The year was 1966: “We were on the front page of the newspaper, along with lots of good talk about the holiday and adoption. We were brought up without our culture, which took a terrible toll on our lives. I grew up angry and miserable.”
St. John’s experience was replicated all over Indian country in the mid-to-late 20th century. The boarding-school era that had begun in the late 1800s was winding down and the abusive residential schools set up to isolate and assimilate Native children were being closed down or turned over to the tribes, a process that was largely completed by the 1970s. Meanwhile, another means of separating Native children from their communities was gathering steam.
The Indian Adoption Project was a federal program that acquired Indian children from 1958 to 1967 with the help of the prestigious Child Welfare League of America; a successor organization, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, functioned from 1966 until the early 1970s. Churches were also involved. In the Southwest, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints took thousands of Navajo children to live in Mormon homes and work on Mormon farms, and the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations swept many more Indian youngsters into residential institutions they ran nationwide, from which some children were then fostered or adopted out. As many as one third of Indian children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967, according to a 1976 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs.
“People have heard of the boarding-school era and know it was bad, but they don’t know our adoption era even exists,” said White Hawk, who was taken from her family on the Rosebud reservation as a toddler in the mid-1950s. “A few small studies of adult adoptees have been done, and we’re just learning how to talk about what happened. We need think tanks and conferences and scientific research to explore what occurred and how it affected us.”
Then, White Hawk said, that information can inform current Indian child-welfare cases. “When experts take the stand to testify in a child-welfare hearing [about placement of a child or termination of parental rights, for example], they need academic backup to explain the relationship between, for example, suicide and being disconnected from your culture,” she explained. “The courts want Ph.D.-level research to back up what we tell them.”
A paper by Carol Locust, Cherokee, describes Native adoptees suffering from what she calls Split Feather Syndrome—the damage caused by loss of tribal identity and growing up “different” in an inhospitable world. Lost Bird is another term researchers have used to refer to the group, recalling one of the earliest Indian adoptees. A Lakota infant who survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee sheltered by the frozen corpse of her mother was claimed as a war trophy by a general who named her Lost Bird, according to her biographer, Renée Sansome Flood in Lost Bird of Wounded Knee.
Thanks to copious newspaper coverage of the massacre and its aftermath, Lost Bird became her generation’s celebrity adoptee, but fame did not save her from a fate that was a harbinger for too many Native children. She endured intolerance and isolation, and when she rebelled as a teenager, was shipped back to her birth family, where she no longer fit in. After a stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the loss of three children—two died and she gave away the third, according to Flood—Lost Bird was felled by influenza in 1920, at the age of 30. “Throughout her life of prejudice, exploitation, poverty, misunderstanding and disease, she never gave up hope that one day she would find out where she really belonged,” Flood wrote.
At the summits and other events White Hawk has organized or spoken at since 2003, modern-day adoptees have recounted their dramatic life journeys, sometimes for the first time. “The stories vary from the most abusive to the most beautiful, but that’s not the point,” she said. “Even in loving families, Native adoptees live without a sense of who they are. Love doesn’t provide identity.”
“I never felt sorry for myself,” said St. John, “but if I ever got hurt, it wounded me to my soul, because I felt no one was there for me.” In recent years, he has found his birth mother and connected emotionally with his adoptive parents. “They were so young, in their 20s, when a priest convinced them to adopt four Sioux boys from South Dakota. It was too much—for all of us.”
During the adoption era almost any issue—from minor to serious—could precipitate the loss of an Indian child. Two Native people interviewed prior to the summit said they were separated from their families after hospital stays as young children, one for a rash, the other for tuberculosis. A third was seized at his baby-sitter’s home; when his mother tried to rescue him, she was jailed, he said. A fourth recalled that he was taken after his father died, though his mother did not want to give him up. A fifth described being snatched, along with siblings, because his grandfather was a medicine man who wouldn’t give up his traditional ways. As in St. John’s case, no home studies or comparable investigations appear to have been done to support the removals. “Indians had no way to stop white people from taking their kids,” said yet another interviewee. “We had no rights.”
Eighty-five percent of the Native children removed from their families from 1941 to 1967 were placed in non-Indian homes or institutions, said the Association on American Indian Affairs report. The aim, said White Hawk, was assimilation and extinction of the tribes as entities, as their younger generations were removed, year after year—just as it had been with the boarding schools.
“We can’t be afraid to use words like genocide,” said summit participant Anita Fineday, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, managing director of Casey Family Programs’ Indian child-welfare programs and a former chief judge at White Earth Tribal Nation. “The endgame, the official federal policy, was that the tribes wouldn’t exist.”
As Native adoptees struggle to recover their identities, some have trouble accessing their original birth certificates. Many states seal adoption records to protect the confidentiality of the process. “In a state that does this, you have to be a detective to find out where you’re from,” said White Hawk.
Or lucky. According to Sharon Whiterabbit, Ho-Chunk Nation, a business consultant and internationally known rights advocate, the son she’d given up as a teen mother found her because he lost his social security number. To get a new one, he had to petition the courts for his original birth certificate and, using the information he found there, tracked her down.
Could something be done on a tribal level to keep adoption records open and available for those who want them? Whiterabbit asked the group. This summit was about solutions, as well as problems, and Fineday had an answer: “Tribes have a right to know their members, so we can demand the records. We’re not requesting, though. We’re demanding. At White Earth, we were successful with this tack in a couple of cases. When the [adoption] documents arrived, I got goose bumps.”
Carrie Imus, director of social services for and former chairwoman of the Hualapai Tribal Nation, suggested that tribes do pre-enrollment of children who are being adopted out, to ease their return.
According to Terry Cross, Seneca Nation of Indians and founder and executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, nontribal child-welfare workers usually did not recognize the large support network that Native children enjoy: “In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, children were removed from Indian families because auntie was taking care of them, and the system called that neglect. But it was simply a different cultural way of meeting the child’s needs. To this day, social workers who remove Native children don’t know what an Indian family is and what supports are available
in the extended family and tribe.”
Decades of stolen children caused unresolved personal and community-wide grief and high rates of alcoholism, suicide and other social ills that stalk individuals and tribes to this day. “It took me years to realize nothing was wrong with me and the response I had to the trauma I’d experienced as an adoptee,” said Sandra Davidson, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and a program manager for Praxis International, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating violence toward women and children.
Often referred to as “historical trauma,” the pain can’t be cured with quick-fix programs, said Cross. “In Canada, we looked at places where suicide is the highest, and it’s where the culture is most broken down,” he said. “In such cases, do you start suicide-prevention programs, or do you restore balance in the community through more self-governance? I have found that unless you change a community systemically, you can’t affect the symptoms of imbalance, such as suicide.”
Linear thinking—see a problem, apply a solution—is ineffective, he added. “Mainstream society’s services are so fractured. Medical doctors get the body, psychologists get the mind, judges get the social context, and clergy get the spirit. But, in fact, we are all whole people, and real solutions have to address that.”
Cross pointed to the sweat lodge as a way of caring for the whole person. “It’s done in groups and includes teachers, stories and protocols for how to conduct oneself, which relate to the social context,” he said. “You sweat, and you experience aromatic herbs, which heal the body; you participate in prayers and songs, which are in the realm of spirit; and when you come out, you feel better and have moments of clarity that are aspects of mind.”
That type of healing is required for entire communities, as well as for individuals, and is a part of what Cross called the “remembering” of indigenous cultures. Colonization has pulled indigenous cultures apart worldwide, as colonizers have taken land and resources. “They also usurp sovereignty and attack spirituality,” he said. “The last item is removal of children to educate them in the language and worldview of the colonizer. Now, though, we Native people are remembering our traditions and remembering our communities. We’re healing from within.”
The adoptees’ stories must be articulated so they can heal, so their communities can be restored, and so the experiences can help remedy Indian country’s ongoing child-welfare crisis, said White Hawk. The percentage of Native children cared for outside the home remains disproportionately high across the nation, despite the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a 1978 law that sought to ameliorate the situation—but has yet to do so. In Alaska, Native children make up 18 percent of the child population but 55 percent of the children in foster care; in South Dakota, Indian kids are 15 percent of the state’s youngsters, but 53 percent of those in foster care. Other states topping the list for skewed numbers include Minnesota—where the overrepresentation of Native kids in foster care increased substantially from 2004 to 2009—Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Another summit attendee, Gina Jackson, Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, is educating judges through a model-court program of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in Nevada. The program helps jurists understand ICWA and relevant best practices. “We’ve signed up 66 jurisdictions and will help them work for compliance,” she said.
Education of the judiciary is crucial, said Arizona state judge Kathleen Quigley: “ICWA cases are not the bulk of a judge’s work, so many are not familiar with the law.” And the concept of the “active efforts” needed under ICWA to find and notify a child’s tribe of a possible removal from the family is not dealt with sufficiently in case law, she said.
“At this meeting, it has been critical for me to hear from folks who’ve been in the system and to understand how being taken from their families and communities affected their lives,” Jackson said. “I want everyone who works with kids and families to hear these voices.” Michael Petoskey, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and chief judge of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, agreed. “Thank you for sharing your stories,” he told the survivors of the adoption era. “We judges may underestimate the impact on people’s lives when we terminate parental rights.”
“Your saying that is medicine for those of us who’ve been through this,” White Hawk responded. Going forward, the repatriation institute will work to affect policy and will organize a day of prayer and healing for Friday, November 2, 2012. “We’re hoping to have events at state capitols nationwide,” said George McCauley, Omaha, head of the Institute’s board of directors.
Jerry Dearly, the renowned Oglala Lakota storyteller and educator who serves as White Hawk’s advisor, informed the group that healing is about identity, understood on a profound level. “You have to find out who you really are, who you really were,” he said. “Go to a quiet place where it’s just you and the Creator. All of us are beautiful, but you have to believe in yourself.”
“Now I have cancer and am waiting for an operation,” St. John told the summit. “But I believe in myself, and I can survive anything.”
Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.
If you’ve heard the term 60s scoop and thought it had something to do with ice-cream in ye olden days, I’m here to enlighten you. I prefer the term stolen generations, because the scooping I’m about to discuss didn’t end in the ’60s, and arguably still goes on today.
I am referring to the wholesale removal of aboriginal children from their families.
In the mid ’60s, the federal and provincial governments collaborated to provide child welfare coverage in First Nations communities. Before this, no real system was in place for First Nations people.
The similarity to tactics used during the height of the residential school system is eerie. Aboriginal children were taken en masse from their families and adopted out into non-Native families:
Child welfare workers removed Aboriginal children from their families and communities because they felt the best homes for the children were not Aboriginal homes. The ideal home would instill the values and lifestyles with which the child welfare workers themselves were familiar: white, middle-class homes in white, middle-class neighbourhoods. Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal parents and families were deemed to be “unfit.”
Research has shown that in British Columbia alone, the percentage of native children in the care of the child welfare system went from almost none to one-third in only 10 years as a result of this expansion. This was a pattern that repeated itself all across Canada.
There is evidence that at least 11,132 status Indian children were removed from their homes between 1960 and 1990. However, it is clear the numbers are in fact much higher than this, as birth records were often closed and status not marked down on foster records. Some estimate the number, which included non-status and Métis children, is more like 20,000.
The ’60s scoop picked up where residential schools left off, removing children from their homes, and producing cultural amputees.
Child welfare reforms not working
In the late ’70s, it was recognized that the approach up to that point was inadequate. There were efforts made to turn more power over to First Nations themselves and to keep children in their communities rather than being adopted out across Canada, into the U.S. and even overseas.
In 1982, Manitoba Judge Edwin C. Kimelman was appointed to head an inquiry into the child welfare system and how it was impacting native peoples. He had this to say:
“It would be reassuring if blame could be laid to any single part of the system. The appalling reality is that everyone involved believed they were doing their best and stood firm in their belief that the system was working well. Some administrators took the ostrich approach to child welfare problems — they just did not exist. The miracle is that there were not more children lost in this system run by so many well-intentioned people. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and the child welfare system was the paving contractor.”
Nor was this his strongest condemnation of the process, and he made it clear that the system was a form of cultural genocide (page 44).
Unfortunately, by 2002 over 22,500 native children were in foster care across Canada, more than the total taken during the ’60s scoop and certainly more than had been taken to residential schools. Aboriginal children are six to eight times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-native children. To ignore the repeated attempts to annihilate aboriginal cultures and instead place the blame solely on “dysfunctional native families” is to take an utterly ahistorical and abusive view.
“…[this] over representation…is not rooted in their indigenous race, culture and ethnicity. Rather, any family with children who has experienced the same colonial history and the resultant poverty, social and community disorganization…may find themselves in a similar situation.”
Systemic discrimination and underfunding
On April 18th, a historic ruling came down from the Federal Court regarding the underfunding of child welfare services on reserves. This case is a judicial review of a decision made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which dismissed the claims on a technicality.
The Federal Court has sent the case back to the CHRT for a full hearing:
“Repeated studies have shown funding for child welfare on reserves is far below that available to children off-reserve and results in far lower levels of service. In particular, the lack of funds available for programs that can help families before they are broken up results in far higher rates of children being taken into foster care on reserves than off reserves.”
No situation involving children in need of protective services is a happy one. The stories regardless of the background of the child will chill your blood, and rightfully so. But when only 21 per cent of children in a province like Manitoba are native, yet account for 84 percent of children in permanent care, something is deeply, and terribly wrong. Something that cannot be chalked up to just bad parenting.
The main reason aboriginal children enter the child protection system is due to “neglect.” Neglect in cases involving aboriginal children is driven primarily by three structural risk factors: poverty, inadequate housing and substance misuse.
Inadequate housing is a serious, systemic problem in many First Nations communities. Overcrowding, lack of indoor plumbing or potable water, mould-infested homes and crumbling infrastructure all play a part in what constitutes “inadequate housing.” It is also a factor that is rarely something the families in question can directly control. Attawapiskat recently provided stark evidence of this.
Aboriginal children and their families are being punished for being faced with unacceptable living conditions that no one living in Canada should have to contend with.
The legacy of over 100 years of concerted cultural abuse, particularly directed at taking children away from their families, has taken its toll on our communities. There is no denying it. In my opinion, the question now needs to be: Will Canada acknowledge this and do what it takes to redress these wrongs?
A more detailed version of this article was posted on the author’s blog, âpihtawikosisân.