Recently our state held an ICWA Summit in Rapid City to discuss the issue of Native American children in the foster care system. ICWA stands for Indian Child Welfare Act, and it was established to preserve the Native American culture by keeping these children in Native homes connected to their culture and their families.
I watched the news coverage and was frustrated by what I heard. The only people interviewed for news coverage were two grandmothers who wanted to get their grandchildren placed with them instead of being in foster care. They need to raise their grandchildren because their children are unable to, whether it's due to alcohol, drug addiction, or other situations.
Now I haven't walked a mile in their shoes nor do I assume to understand the nuances and struggles of life as a Native American in today's culture. But I do have over 10 years as a foster parent in South Dakota, where more than half of the children in foster care are Native American, so I can speak to the experiences that we have had.
First let me say that as a child, I watched the Lone Ranger, and it was one of my favorite shows. However, it wasn't the Lone Ranger that I admired- it was Tonto. He could follow any trail, ride bareback, and was as loyal as the day is long. I wanted to be an Indian in the worst way, and many of my pretend play included mylself as Tonto's best buddy.
I had such admiration for the Native Americans, so when I began fostering, I was looking foward to helping the children from this proud community. What I discovered was not at all what I was expecting. Between our foster care system and the Tribal personnel who have authority over Native children who have membership, we are doing a huge disservice to these children. Let me give you a few examples.
Our first Native girl, Isabella, was 2 years old- found at attending a party with her mother one night, who by the way, had already lost 2 children to termination (meaning her parental rights had been taken away and the children placed with relatives or adoptive families.) After 3 months with us, the foster family who had adopted her older biological sister was located and Isabella was moved to that home. After almost 5 years with them, she is still in limbo and has not been released by the tribe for adoption, even though her mother has written a letter asking that this foster family adopt Isabella so she can grow up with her sister.
Our second Native kids were a sibling group of 3 boys- their 2 older brothers were placed in VOA due to gang related activity, and we took the boys who were 5, 8, and 9 years old. Their mother was a Meth addict and after placement, she disappeared and they never saw her again. These boys were with us for 9 months. Each boy had a different father, and they couldn't pick their dads out of a lineup if they wanted to. They had learned to shoplift for food and wash their clothes in the bathtub. They had witnessed an uncle put a gun into his mouth and pull the trigger in their kitchen. They doodled "Native Pride" on their notebooks, but were clueless when I exposed them to Lakota culture. DSS wanted to keep all 5 boys together, and thankfully a prison guard and his wife were up for the challenge, so they adopted all 5 boys.
Next came Echoe, a child frought with attachment issues so severe that I couldn't leave her sight or she would scream. She almost died in an apartment fire because her mother and mother's boyfriend had passed out with cigarettes burning. The boyfriend died in the fire, but neighbors were able to tell the firemen about Echoe, otherwise she would've died too. She was with us for 4 months, then the judge threw her case out. Echoe's mother is a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome adult and doesn't make good choices. Echoe screamed in the van all the way down our driveway as the caseworker drove away. Police found Echoe alone in an apartment clear across the state 2 weeks later, and last I heard she was still in foster care.
Our next Native sibling group was a 6 yo, 3 yo and 6 month old removed because their parents and grandmother were arrested in a drug bust. ( Apparently this isn't the cookie-baking kind of grandma). Because these kids were enrolled in a tribe, we knew they would be claimed eventually, which they were about 5 months later. The tribe has members who will keep the kids, then the kids are returned to the parents when they get out of jail. DSS has no jurisdiction on the reservation in these cases.
Our last Native placement was a little 3 yo boy named Marcus who was placed with us as an adoptive placement- he had been in care almost 18 months, but the current foster family did not want to adopt. His parents were unstable and the father looking at some serious jail time for sexually abusing his daughters, and meetings with relatives had come to a standstill, with no one willing to raise this little guy. Since DSS was looking at termination, Marcus had been placed with us for the 6 month prerequisite time prior to being able to adopt him. Well, once an elder Auntie who had been asked repeatedly to take him and refused, found out that a White family was going to adopt him, she told the caseworker she wouldn't let that happen, so she begrudgenly stepped up at the last minute to take him. This woman had a record that intimidated me, including embezzling funds from the Indian Health Clinic where she had worked, and charges of blackmailing employees to get what she wanted. When you are a Native child, the only prerequisite for claiming you is to have a family connection, or to be a registered member of the same tribe.
In all of these cases, the birth families did not have the abilities to provide a safe environment for these children, whether it was due to addiction or dysfunctional lifestyles. In each case, the kids had been living in situations that no child should have to be in. NONE of these situations were providing these children with anything close to the lifestyle and culture that the ICWA advocates keep saying are waiting there to wrap these children up in it's arms and raise them. These homes are not "Native American Culture" homes that they preach about and say these children are being taken from. These kids are growing up with drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, gang activity, incredible neglect and abandonment, and a less than stable family unit. THIS is what ICWA wants to preserve?
So when I hear these people demeaning placement into foster homes for these children, as if we are the bottom of the barrel home/family situations option, I tend to get a bit incensed. And when they insist that Native kids be placed into Native foster homes, we all wonder how the hundreds of Indian children could fit into the whopping 3 licensed Native homes here in the Sioux Falls area.
I won't go on about the things we provide to these kids, but I can say that I find alot of satisfaction in seeing them begin to relax and breath again, knowing that they are in a safe place with plenty of food and parents who watch over them with care. They need their basic needs met first before they can begin to worry about whether they are staying in touch with their culture.
Now I know that the ICWA advocates have a lofty goal for keeping these kids attached to their culture, and I fully support that goal. However, they are going about it in ways that won't provide results. Most of these families are already so far detached from this elusive "culture" that the foster families often provide more cultural experiences for these children than their birth families ever did.
I truly don't know what the answer to this dilemma is, but I would like to hope that DSS and ICWA can begin to work together more peaceably to come up with a solution. If the goal is to retain a time honored culture and it's traditions, the children need to be able to grow up first into functioning adults so they can pass those traditions on to their children. If these kids never get that far, then the goal is lost.
Focus should be on the family issues that are putting these kids into care in the first place so that it never gets to the point of removing the children. Then, if it does get to that point, for these elders of the Native community to see foster care for what it's intended to be- a safety net for these children. Work together with the foster families to keep these kids connected to their culture, recruit stable Native families to be foster families, and focus on the best interest of the children. They are the future.