The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) – which requires state courts to make active efforts to protect indigenous children and keep indigenous families together – is currently at risk of being struck down by the Supreme Court in Brackeen vs. Haaland. Congress passed the ICWA in 1978 to address the national crisis of state child welfare agencies snatching Indigenous children from their families and placing them in non-Indigenous homes, in an effort to force Indigenous children to assimilate and adopt white cultural norms.
Being removed from home and family and disconnected from culture, tradition and identity deeply harms Indigenous children and has long-lasting and permanent effects. We spoke to two Indigenous people who shared their stories about the impacts of child removal, why ICWA matters, and why Indigenous families have the right to stay together.
Marshal Galvan Jr., Little Shell Chippewa
When I was a kid, I remember going to powwows. I remember seeing native people. I remember being happy in these spaces with my family, and in my eyes and in the eyes of my sisters, my parents could do no wrong. But for some reason, the child welfare system decided that my parents weren’t good parents, and they decided to take that right of parenthood away from them.
When my sisters and I were placed in the child welfare system, we were first placed together, but grew apart and placed in different homes over the years. They said we were bad kids and no one would take all of us because we were a handful to deal with. Looking back, we were just traumatized children. We were children who just wanted the safety of our parents back.
My first placement was in a foster home with a white family. I didn’t learn anything about Catholicism or Christianity before going into foster care. As I moved through the system, I began to land in different homes with different cultures and languages spoken, in different cities, schools, and neighborhoods. Everything was constantly changing, and it constantly reinforced an identity crisis in my life.
By the time I was a teenager, I gravitated to anything and everything that I thought would connect me to something – be it the gang, drugs or alcohol. It gave me a false sense of pride, ego and meaning in life. I put myself in risky situations to feel part of my community. In my young adult life, things started to change for me. I started being incarcerated. I turned 18 and immediately became homeless. My addiction got worse. Suicidal ideation and despair began to set in. Throughout, I struggled with my identity and really wanted to know my roots.
In 1997, when my parents lost their rights, there was no support and there was certainly no communication between our tribe and our family or the courts. At the time, social workers and the courts were not making active efforts to help our family fill these gaps. My family’s tribe, Little Shell, was not federally recognized until 2019. Due to this lack of federal recognition, my family was glossed over and not protected by ICWA .
My tribe allowed me to join the tribe on August 23, 2022, but I have never lived in Montana and am unfamiliar with my tribe’s practices. I recognize him. But thanks to my inscription, I learn and rediscover things on my tribe, and that gave me the possibility of sharing that with my family. I have started to reconnect with my family, and my registration is helping 16 other family members reconnect with the tribe, including my father who wants to relearn his roots. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
It has been a journey to unlearn, decolonize myself, and decolonize my mind. It’s an ongoing process, and I still have a lot of healing to do. To this day, as a tribal person, I still face an identity crisis. But no one should ever feel like they’re not indigenous enough, or enough, period.
It has been a journey to unlearn, decolonize myself, and decolonize my mind.
Now my passion is to help people who have similar stories to mine. Currently, I am a counselor working with youth in the Berkeley area. I would like social workers who work in the child welfare system to continue to learn about their own biases because we are hurting families. We keep children away from their parents and family when they don’t need it.
India’s Child Welfare Act is important because it keeps people like me connected to our cultural roots, family lineage and birthright. Not only does it respect tribal sovereignty, but it also gives Native children the ability to choose whether or not they want to embark on a journey that is a birthright. To have the opportunity to have a community, to be able to have people that I can look around and say, these are my people. That’s the most important thing — family, community and cultural roots.
Mondae Vanderwalker, Rosebud Sioux Tribe
It took me three and a half years of jumping through hoops and dealing with the misdeeds of the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the justice system to adopt my two nephews.
My eldest nephew was taken from my brother when he was about 3 years old. He was placed in the system, and I called the local DSS office and told them I wanted to get custody and adopt my nephew. The DSS representative told me, “No, we’re not going any further or making any progress on this case,” just because they heard hearsay about me. But they never looked into the allegations. I asked the DSS, “Well, how come you’re not doing a background check or whatever you have to do so I can get my nephew?” He is an important part of my life. And they kept saying, no, we’re done here.
I had no money to fight this and I didn’t know what to do. A few years later, my youngest nephew was born, and he was also taken from my brother when he was only a few months old. After he was abducted, a woman from another DSS office contacted me and asked, “Would you be interested in taking him?” and I said “Yes”, in the blink of an eye. I had been waiting for this phone call for many years.
DSS put my husband and I through a program to get an adoptive parent certificate to start the process of adopting our nephews. Once we were finalized for the adoption process, DSS finally let us go see my nephews in their foster home. We had to drive from Sioux Falls at two and a half hours every weekend to see them. But on our third visit, the host family tried to prevent us from visiting them. I thought the deal was that we worked to get these kids back with us, but the foster family kept trying to block our visits. The DSS reps warned me, “You’re going to have a battle on your hands – the foster family wants to adopt these kids.”
I kept thinking, “I have to do something about this, because I’m going to lose my nephews.” I spoke to someone I knew in our tribal council and then our tribal chairman and told them what was going on. I told them I was afraid of losing my nephews, because we were on the edge, and the foster family got a lawyer to try to keep our nephews away from us. They even tried to argue that my eldest nephew was not a registered tribal member, which would have made him ineligible for ICWA protection. If that had happened, the foster family could have adopted him right away. But luckily my brother filled out tribal registration papers for my eldest nephew years ago – it turns out the DSS never passed them on to court.
Our tribal chairman ended up hiring a lawyer to help me fight for my nephews and we went to court. ICWA ended up saving us. If one of my nephews wasn’t a Native American child, a non-Native could have adopted them no questions asked, and I would have lost them. But after a three and a half year battle, I was finally able to legally adopt my nephews under ICWA.
My two nephews are now 8 and 4 years old. Once we were reunited, I felt relieved, like a lot of pressure had been lifted off my shoulders. I was happy that the fight was finally over and that we could finally live our lives. I want to help more people understand ICWA and tell them not to give up. If I hadn’t talked to someone and tried to get help, he would have disappeared. But I fought and fought and I never gave up. It makes you think – how many more people, how many children who are sacred to Native Americans, do you think we’ve lost like this, in this system?
My nephews love me for what I did because now they know a lot about powwows, everything about the tribe and our ancestors. Before, they didn’t know any of this. They didn’t know what a powwow was. They didn’t know what fried bread was or what Indian tacos were. But they do now. Now they can better understand their culture and where they come from.
If ICWA had not been set up, I would have lost my nephews. The ICWA guidelines are important, but the state must follow them. When my nephews were first placed in the system, my tribe was supposed to be involved from the start, but they weren’t. Under ICWA, it was the responsibility of a DSS worker to call our family and tribe to let them know that these children were placed in foster care with non-Native American families, but that did not happen. product. Our tribe needs to know that these children are in this system. And they should have known that a long time ago.
If ICWA had not been set up, I would have lost my nephews.
When government employees do not follow ICWA guidelines, it harms our people by allowing our children to be adopted by other families and away from their tribe. The ICWA is there to protect us, and the DSS must do more to help these Native American children be reunited with their families.
ICWA helps us keep our children with their families as they should be. Our children should stay with us and we should keep our families together.
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