ICWA and Dr Phil - Oil and Water

**Disclaimer - I am not an expert on ICWA. Don't claim to be. But I am a foster parent who has studied Native American history extensively and spent much time on a reservation in South Dakota and these are my thoughts. For all the facts on ICWA, see the Indian Child Welfare Association's website and this great FAQ.


Wow - the Dr. Phil show on ICWA and Baby Veronica just aired here.

Well, let's just say it wasn't what I was expecting. Maybe I hoped for too much. I hoped for a history lesson on the foundations of ICWA, the cultural necessity of preserving the native culture and maybe even some suggestions to protect culture when the child is not able to be placed with a native family. Or at least a respectful dialogue - instead this was so, so one-sided and anti-tribe. As a white foster and hopeful adoptive parent who has spent much time on the reservation - I felt sick and then I felt the need to blog.

As a non-native adoptive parent who has had native children in my home, I believe it is our responsibility to understand the heritage and the roots of adoption at large - and all the missteps (to put it lightly) that have been made along the way - but also specifically understand the roots of Native adoption.

The facts are this, "A 1976 study by the Association on American Indian Affairs found that 25 to 35% of all Indian children were being placed in out-of-home care. Eighty-five percent of those children were being placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. (source)   25 to 35% of ALL Native kids were removed from their family's and the majority of those were placed with non-natives! As white Americans, we have no scope for how many that is - and how it affected and continues to affect the native culture at large.

And if we dig deeper still, there has been a historical, specific and planned attack on Native American children and through them, diminish Native culture. There have been multiple attempts in our recent history to "Kill the Indian, and save the man." Boarding schools and unnecessary adoptions being two big hitters (learn more).

ICWA is there for a reason. It has a real purpose and it is keeping native children with native families - which is a good thing. I hope we all can agree that children do better when they can be fostered and adopted by an amazing family of the same culture. But sometimes that isn't possible or doesn't happen initially.

The complications come up "on the ground" so to speak, when the tribe isn't informed or isn't involved in the child's removal or initial placement into foster care or adoption. Which by law, they should be. In my area - the social worker, lawyer, has a legal obligation to contact the tribe to see if the child is enrolled or eligible for enrollment and if the tribe. At this point, two weeks into a placement a case should be known as ICWA (and the tribe is involved) or NON-ICWA (child is not a member or illegible for enrollment of the tribe or the tribe wishes not to be involved).

It also gets complicated on what children are impacted by this law. "ICWA defines an "Indian child" as "any unmarried person who is under age eighteen and is either (a) a member of an Indian tribe or (b) is eligible for membership in an Indian tribe and is the biological child of a member of an Indian tribe" (25 U.S.C. § 1903)."  But, tribal enrollment and its requirements vary by tribe. (This point I am honestly not as clear on, so if you know - comment below). So some children with Native heritage are eligible and some are not - and this is based largely on what tribes statues are and if their Mom, Dad, and Grandparents are from or enrolled in the tribe themselves.

In Baby Veronica's case, it sounded to me that not only did the Father not know this child was being placed for adoption, the tribe didn't know the child was being placed for adoption. Both of which should have happened, like I said within the first few weeks of the placement of the child for adoption. Of course, it is heart-wrenching for this family - every adoptive parent can place themselves in their shoes and empathize with them deeply. You can see how much they love this little girl and the hope really is that they could find a way to continue contact, but only if they are able to support her new and growing attachment with her father.

As for the family that is hiding in the hills somewhere - they never said their child's adoption was even finalized, so if they ran with a foster child... that's kidnapping people. ICWA or no - you can't just flee with a foster child, they are not yours legally, no matter how much you love them.

One thing I really appreciated about the show was when the Judge made the point of the complete separateness of the sovereign Indian Nations. In that light, a nation should have a huge say in what happens to our children. The analogy isn't perfect, but how would white Americans feel if one of "our children", a citizen of the United States was adopted by a couple in Iraq - legally by Iraqi standards, with full consent of the American mother, but with no notification of the American Father and no consultation with the American government at large? We'd be outraged. There would be cries of kidnapping and we would fully support our government stepping in to "rescue" "our" child and return them to their rightful, American, father.

We like to think of the entire United States as a melting pot. If it is, ICWA makes no sense. Yet, in light of US history and fact that Native American Tribes are sovereign, separate and complete nations - with government, culture, and people that are distinct from American at large, the law starts to come into focus. The tribes need to be notified, involved and a preference for native families is at the discretion of that sovereign government.

That isn't to say that the law might not need tweaking, as so many laws do so that it translates into best practice on the ground, but it is worthwhile for everyone to attempt to UNDERSTAND the entire issue before jumping down one another throats - because haven't we all had enough of that?

Anyway - there are my ramblings. This is an issue that is near and dear and HEATED for many people, so I would love to hear your thoughts, but please, please keep it respectful and thoughtful or I will delete comments. 

 It is high time we start listening to one another as well as speaking.  Let's share and then listen to one another...