Native Americans Say Law That Protects Children at Risk

28 October, 2018

An American law that blocks placement of Native American children with non-native American families was ruled illegal earlier this month.

A federal judge in Texas announced the decision, surprising many native groups.

The judge said the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, of 1978, is unfair. He said it gives Native Americans seeking to adopt children favorable treatment based on race. He said that violates the equal protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution.

Most tribes see the ruling as a continuation of years of culturally destructive U.S. government policies. Children are responsible for continuing the cultures and traditions of their tribes. So, they argue, native children need to remain in native homes.

File photo shows Cherokee tribe members protesting the adoption of a 3-year-old Cherokee girl by a non-Native couple, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 in Tulsa, OK.
File photo shows Cherokee tribe members protesting the adoption of a 3-year-old Cherokee girl by a non-Native couple, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 in Tulsa, OK.

Iva Johnson is a member of the Navajo Nation. She was living in Arizona in 2015 when she had a heart attack at her home. After waking up days later, two women she did not recognize were sitting nearby.

They explained that they were with the Department of Child Safety (DCS). They said they were removing three of her four children from their home because there was no one to care for them. Johnson was too sick to speak. She wanted to tell them that her oldest child is 21 years old and able to care for the three children.

Before she could speak, the women forced her to sign a document that gave her three younger children up for adoption.

It took three years of court action before Johnson was reunited with her children. They had been separated from each other and spent time in different non-Native homes.

Congress passed ICWA forty years ago in order to prevent such events. At that time, as many as one-third of all Native American children had been taken from their families and placed in non-native homes.

Stephen Pevar is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He explains how ICWA works.

"Before you can place an Indian child in a non-Indian home, you have to first look for another member of the immediate family, then another member of the tribe, then another Indian family before you can place that child in a non-Indian home."

Johnson says that the DCS in Arizona failed to follow the law. DCS officials did not answer VOA's request for comment.

Today, Johnson, like many Native Americans, worries that such court rulings could cause many more native families to lose their children.

Social isolation, poverty and poor health care services on many Native American reservations have added to the rise in rates of alcohol and drug abuse rates and crime related to such problems.

A 2014 examination of child removal cases in Pennington County, South Dakota, showed that alcohol abuse was involved in more than half of the removals. Violence in the home was noted in 22 percent of cases. Child abuse was given as a reason in nine percent of all cases.

Children who are removed from their homes and placed with strangers suffer higher rates of mental health problems, including drug and alcohol dependency. Parents who lose their children suffer loss, guilt and shame.

"And it's even worse when you place somebody in a different culture, which is usually what happens to Indian children," said ACLU lawyer Pevar.

Jase Roe is 41 years old. He agrees. He was born on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana but taken from his mother when he was a baby. At first, he lived with a relative in Minnesota. He was later sent to a non-native home.

"Everything was different there," he said. "They didn't understand my culture or where I was coming from. They didn't understand the humor that goes along with my culture or the way we interact with each other."

One of the only minority students in school, Roe said he was always treated badly.

"I grew up ashamed of who I was, ashamed of being Native," he said. "I wished I was white."

Roe became dependent on alcohol and other drugs at an early age. It took him many years to break free of them.

"It took a lot of work," he said, "and I'm still in therapy...."

Roe said he believes placing native children in non-native homes does more harm than good.

"It doesn't give them a sense of who they are," he said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is against ending ICWA. They say groups that support children's rights consider it to be the best example of children's interest policies.

Pevar said he is not worried about attacks on the law. He said, "There have been challenges to ICWA from Day One." Yet, he thinks the law will stay.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Cecily Hilleary reported on this story for VOANews. Dorothy Gundy adapted this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

adopt – v. to take a child of other parents legally as your own child

isolation – n. the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others

shame – n. a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong

therapy – n. the treatment of physical or mental illnesses

challenges – n. difficult tasks or problems : something that is hard to do

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