This guest post was written by Brittany Kellerman.
The New York Times published an article on January 26, 2013 entitled "Focus on Preserving Heritage Can Limit Foster Care for Indians" by Dan Frosch. The article discusses the impact that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 continues to have today on Native American children and families. It highlights the fact that Native American children are highly overrepresented in child welfare systems around the country, including in Minnesota. It also points out the extreme shortage of licensed Indian foster families in particular states, such as in New Mexico, where in Bernalillo County there are 65 Indian children in state custody, but only 5 Indian foster homes. This discrepancy leads Native American children waiting in shelters for significant amounts of time while searching for relatives or native foster homes and in many cases ultimately placing the children in non-native foster homes.
While the article provides important facts around disparities that are beneficial to dispelling myths, it does not dig deep into why these disparities continue to exist. It is however quick to point to the poverty and the substance abuse endemic in American Indian communities as being the reasons for low rates of Native foster homes, while the issues of institutional racism and historical trauma are simply skimmed over.
As an example of a case where ICWA impacts the outcomes for native children, the article discusses a highly publicized case of Baby Veronica. In this case, a judge ordered a white couple to return a 27-month-old girl they raised since birth to her biological Indian father. In this case, the father was estranged from the mother and was unaware that his daughter was going to be put up for adoption. The facts of the case demonstrate that the father engaged in seeking custody as soon as he was notified of the request for adoption. The decision to return the child to her father was based upon the child's tribal status and the ruling that the birth mother tried to conceal the father's tribal affiliation.
The case of Baby Veronica, while governed by ICWA in this case due to the father's tribal affiliation, brings up questions around all fathers' parental rights that were not addressed in the article. If this case were involving a non-native father, would the child be returned to the biological father? If a biological father is willing/able to provide a loving home for the child, it only seems right to keep the child connected to their biological roots. The case of Baby Veronica will be held before the Supreme Court in April 2013 and the court will be asked to consider the constitutionality of ICWA.
In summary, ICWA has made a significant impact on the Native American population by keeping many children connected to their heritage. Clearly, Native American families continue to face significant challenges and discrimination in their interactions with child welfare agencies and cases such as Baby Veronica's demonstrate a continued need for additional protection for Native families.
For more information on the Baby Veronica case, click here.