A former Oklahoma foster parent is pursuing legislative changes to state and federal Indian child welfare laws in response to a personal experience she had in which her two former foster children lived with her for three months before being placed in a tribal foster home. She is concerned that the law would require such a move based only on the children's Native heritage, and that multiple placements, particularly those in which the end result is "not an improvement" from the original placement, are harmful to the children. She wants such laws to look at the best interests of the child over the best interests of the tribe.
Two readers made comments on this article that I thought were worth noting:
- "It should have said: 'Best interest of the child in the eyes of the non Indians'"
- "This is a one-sided article that makes absolutely no attempt to talk to members of Oklahoma's tribal nations about their feelings towards the law or the reason for it."
In whose eyes are we determining what the best interests of the child are?
One of the main points I took home from the 2011 Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare was that the child and the child's tribe are inextricably linked:
- Through the child, the tribe continues its way of life, including its traditions, values, beliefs, and knowledge.1
- Through the tribe, the child learns personal and collective identity.2
As harmful as it is to the tribe to remove the child, it is seen as equally (if not more) harmful to the child to deny the child the right to the child's identity and culture. Thus, child well-being in terms of the child's best interests is meant to include the child's connection and relationship with the child's tribe.
Provided that the original foster placement ensured child safety and well-being, the abrupt placement change after three months of stability was of course unnecessary and may very well have had harmful effects on the children involved. However, the actual language within the applicable laws does not appear to be the issue; rather, it seems that the issue lies with timely compliance of the applicable laws.
As you read articles such as the one I mentioned in this post, thoughtfully consider the perspectives of all parties involved and the false perception that tribal and child best interests are mutually exclusive. Think about the events that set the stage for a law like the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978: Is it ICWA reform that is needed, or better support for agency and personnel compliance with ICWA?
- 1"For American Indians, the extended family is the primary means by which their culture is maintained and developed...It was recognized that there exists 'no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children' (Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, 25 U.S.C. § 1901(3))." Guerrero, M. P. (1979). Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978: A response to the threat to Indian culture caused by foster and adoptive placements of Indian children. American Indian Law Review, 7(1), 59.
- 2"It is through relationship with family, elders, tribal community, and culture that the Indian child's sense of permanence and identity is protected (25 U.S.C. § 1901 et seq.)." Purpose of ICWA:
- Protect Indian children
- Preserve and strengthen Indian families
- Ensure permanency for Indian children
- Protect the continuing existence of Indian cultures
- Ensure that tribes can exercise their sovereign authority over child custody proceedings