Native families welcome children home, but 'long road' not over for others
TEMECULA, Calif. — Cash Rocha is 7, going on 8. He started second grade this fall along with his two best friends from preschool. Cash gets good grades, but says he didn't like school. He rarely holds still and rockets through the cool shade of the Great Oak, the 1,000-year-old live oak tree that is the center of Pechanga culture and history on its tribal lands in southern California.
Cash's career goal is to become a top YouTuber. He said he's making videos featuring his "plushies," neon-furred stuffed critters with spidery legs, oversized feet and big eyes, which he planned to premiere three days after he was interviewed by The Arizona Republic.
He was headed to a tribal culture camp the next day, where he would learn about his heritage as a Pechanga and play with some of his cousins.
Cash has only experienced growing up in a nice home with a mom and dad, surrounded by loving extended family members and friends he's known all his short life. He was adopted by Victor, also a Pechanga tribal member, and Victor's wife, Patricia, about a year after arriving in the Rocha's home as a 9-week-old infant. He was taken from his biological mother, who was unable to care for him.
"Cash was the first intertribal adoption in 100 years," Victor said.
The young Pechanga boy is lucky: He was born almost 40 years after a groundbreaking federal law set requirements for state child custody policies. Those policies are meant to protect Indian children who are members of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe, and to prioritize placement of such children into tribal families or communities.
Although Cash's story has a happy ending, the same can't be said for other Native kids who get caught up in state child protective services.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, known as ICWA, was enacted in 1978 to stop the wholesale theft of thousands of Indigenous children from their homes. The children were placed with mostly white families in another attempt to break up tribes and assimilate tribal members into mainstream culture. ICWA also allows for the transfer of Indian child welfare cases into tribal court, requires state courts to make active efforts to protect Native children and keep Native families together
The law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June after a challenge by some non-Indian families, but some problems remain. While some tribes have committed resources and personnel to child and family programs, others have been challenged to build capacity. The opioid and fentanyl epidemics haven't spared Indian Country, which leaves more children in need of care.
Children like Cash Rocha thrive when Native people step forward and give them loving homes within their communities, while older adoptees struggle to find their blood relations.
Mid 20th-century policy: Give Indian 'waifs' to non-Native families
From 1958 through the early 1970s, thousands of Native children were removed from their homes and sent to be adopted or fostered by non-Indian families. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sanctioned the adoptions and, with the Child Welfare league of America, ran its own program from 1958 to 1967, the Indian Adoption Project.
Headed by Arnold Lyslo, the project aimed to remove Native kids from their home and give them to non-Native, mostly white, families to raise. In a 1966 news release on the project, Lyslo said, "One little, two little, three little Indians — and 206 more — are brightening the homes and lives of 172 American families, mostly non-Indians, who have taken the Indian waifs as their own."
Although the BIA program only took 395 Native kids from their homes, nonprofit groups and state child welfare agencies were encouraged to remove even more children from tribal lands. By one account, by the time Congress enacted ICWA, about one-third of all Indian children had been snatched on flimsy pretexts and put up for adoption. Some mothers never saw their newborns because welfare workers were waiting to take the babies away.
The Association on American Indian Affairs was one of the leading organizations that supported tribes' cries to stop destroying their communities by stealing all their children. It published "Indian Family Defense" to raise awareness of the growing issue, writing: "The decision to take Indian children from their natural homes is, in most cases, carried out without due process of law and with little regard for the impact on the children, their families, and the community."
The government's and agencies' reasoning was that reservations were unfit environments for children, who would be better off with "superior" upbringing by adoptive families.
Many of the accounts in the publication are harrowing. Some Native activists even charged that federal foster care subsidies allowed non-Indian farm families to start "baby farms" with as many as 12 children.
'I was always searching for what it means to be me'
While not all Native adoptees were abused or neglected, most of them feel like an essential part of their lives is missing.
After spending his first two years in foster homes after his teen mother gave him up at birth, Chris Stearns was adopted by a surgeon and his wife, a nurse. The couple whisked the toddler from Los Angeles to New Jersey. There, the young boy grew up in privilege on the Jersey shore. His parents put him through an exclusive private boarding school and college, and he graduated from Cornell Law School in 1989. He was headed for a stellar career.
But Stearns wasn't like the other kids.
"I didn't fit in," he said. "I looked totally different."
That's because Stearns' mother was Navajo.
Growing up in an upscale neighborhood around light-skinned kids, Stearns said he had to field questions like "Were you dropped off at a gas station?" from his classmates. Stearns said he was filled with questions himself, but his parents refused to answer. Although he said he never doubted they wanted the best for him, home was never like "Ozzie and Harriet."
That silence and knowing he wasn't like other kids in his town led to years of self-doubt.
"I was always searching for what it meant to be me," he said.
But Stearns found a way to keep at least some connection to his heritage. Instead of a plush corporate law office, he chose legal services. He said he was inspired by the actions of two Tuscarora men who occupied a newspaper office in Robeson County, North Carolina in 1988 to bring attention to corruption in the county sheriff's office.
"Timothy Jacobs (one of the occupiers) didn't think for a moment about his identity," Stearns said. "He knew who he was."
Over the years, Stearns has served Indian Country by representing school boards and other Native clients. He worked on Capitol Hill, ultimately appointed as the first-ever director of Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy in 1988 under Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
He went on to serve on the Washington state gaming commission, as the first Native American member of the Auburn City Council and on various boards. Again, Stearns was motivated by law enforcement misdeeds, this time when a local Native carver was shot and killed by police.
In 2022, he won his first term as a Washington state representative.
Stearns married a woman of Tlingit and Haida heritage. Their daughters are enrolled with the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes, and Stearns said he's happy to see his family immersing themselves in their cultures.
But there's a wistful note in Stearns' voice when he talks about not knowing his own blood relations. He obtained his original birth certificate, but Stearns has never found his birth family, including an older sister his mother had also given up.
"I can't ask my mom anything," he said. Stearns isn't even sure his birth parents' names are correct, because he said some hospital workers encouraged birth mothers to fib on paperwork.
ICWA has helped, but issues remain
Even with ICWA in place, Native children are still being removed from homes by child welfare agencies for suspected neglect or abuse at rates more than three times the national average, according to data evaluated by Casey Family Programs. The nonprofit foundation aims to prevent the need for foster care by strengthening families and supporting child and family wellbeing.
In contrast to other states like Montana, Minnesota and Alaska, Arizona's history is not as dire, but records supplied by the Department of Child Safety said Native kids in Arizona account for 10% of foster children in the system. Native people in Arizona account for about 5% of the state's total population.
David Lujan, director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety, would like to lower those numbers for both Native and non-Native kids.
"Everybody can learn from the enactment of ICWA," he said, particularly using kinship care models developed by tribes. Lujan said his agency's goal is to place 65 to 70% of kids in kinship foster arrangements.
"We find kids have better outcomes in kinship arrangements," he said. "It also keeps kids within their culture."
The agency now has more than 55% kinship placements for kids over four or five years, Lujan said.
The Arizona Legislature helped support kinship care by increasing per-child payments from $75 monthly to $300, provided they become licensed foster parents, Lujan said. The monthly payments for non-family foster parents is $600.
The agency also partners with other family-focused organizations to provide preventive services, which aim to reduce removals by strengthening families. The agency has agreements with four tribes and would like to develop placement agreements with more tribes, he said.
Lujan also acknowledged that the agency has had to travel a "long road" to achieve what they have so far.
And yet, even with ICWA protections in place, some Native families still experience difficulty bringing their children home. In Alaska, as reported by the talk show "Native America Calling," a non-Native woman has consistently refused to give up an Alaska Native child even after being ordered to by a tribal court. The non-Native father gave the woman custody of the child before he was convicted of murdering the child's mother.
Foster parents encounter kids showing up with nothing
Back at Pechanga, Victor Rocha said becoming a dad at age 53 was a game changer.
"It wasn't something we were looking for," he said. "We were just being professional adults, jetting around the world as I ran my business."
That carefree life changed when two elders cornered Rocha at a tribal meeting. "They said that we had a big house and could take in some kids." The tribe asked the Rochas to serve as emergency foster parents.
"Next thing we knew, we had this little 18-month-old girl sitting in our kitchen," he said.
The Rochas quickly encountered a situation common to new foster parents: They had nothing in the house to care for small children. "We didn't even know what to feed her."
A cousin advised them to buy what they saw other parents buying at the grocery store. Victor and Patricia also shopped for clothing, diapers, a crib and other child care essentials.
Victor and Patricia Rocha had the resources to purchase whatever they needed. Some foster parents, including extended family, are challenged to find the hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase a crib or bed, clothing, diapers, formula and bottles, baby and toddler food or the myriad other essential items kids need.
Foster children rarely if ever arrive with anything but the clothes on their backs and maybe a diaper or two.
That's a common issue foster parents or some extended family encounter, Elisia Manuel said. Manuel founded Three Precious Miracles in 2014 after she and her husband brought home their first foster child home with just two days' notice to gather everything a 5-day-old premature baby would need.
"He came with a onesie and a borrowed car seat," said Manuel, an Apache married to Tecumseh, an Akimel O'odham and member of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. The Manuels eventually adopted the boy, whom they named Tecumseh, and two other children, all Native, and all meth-exposed.
Manuel relied on ICWA to gain custody of a little girl they have since adopted and named Talicia Precious. "She was placed in a non-Native home," Manuel said. "We went to court three months in a row."
The couple, a physician and his wife, who claimed to be an "unenrolled Cherokee," reluctantly relinquished the child. Manuel still remembers how the baby came to them: "We got a grocery bag with a few things in it for our daughter, Talicia," Manuel said.
After encountering this with other foster children, including now-adopted son Micah (the biological brother of Tecumseh, the couple's first adoptee), Manuel set out to meet those needs to give Native foster families the everyday items they need to bring a child into their home.
"I could buy my kids stuff but not everyone can," she said. Manuel started the organization with donations that turned into corporate partnerships and requests from foster families for cultural support for the kids in their care.
Three Precious Miracles holds beading classes, gifts foster kids blankets emblazoned with their child's tribal logo and motifs so they have a reminder of their community, bowling days and even support groups for women.
"These kids need cultural connections," Manuel said.
'We cracked open a bottle of safety'
That craving for connections hit home for Manuel at one such event. During a beading class, Manuel played drum music because she said it puts her in her "beading zone." A foster child nearby, who had been in the foster care system for about 10 years, stiffened and started crying.
"'I just heard this music and I miss my family and my culture,'" Manuel recounted the boy saying. "We cracked open a bottle of safety."
Manuel's organization also holds community events, such as a clothing and school supply giveaway at Three Precious Miracles' Sacaton office. At one of those events, Manuel said a woman who was caring for her three grandkids was in tears as she found clothing and supplies for the kids.
Another mom, Emily Makil, came to find items for her own two kids along with an aunt who's caring for four children. Makil left with a box containing new socks, a couple of outfits and pencils, markers, and other needs for school-age kids including her 4-year-old son, who waved at the tribal commuter bus as it carried other parents and family members home with their collections.
"This all really helps us out," Makil said.
Manuel's dedication to helping foster families care for the Indigenous children they bring into their homes led Manuel to a new job: recruiting foster families. After COVID pandemic restrictions were lifted at the Gila River Indian Community where Manuel worked, her youngest son cried.
"He didn't want me to go back after working from home," she said.
That's when a friend from a private foster care and youth services agency called.
"What would it take for you to come work for us?" Manuel said the friend asked as he offered her a new job recruiting and training new foster families in cultural awareness. "You can work from home."
Manuel accepted the position.
'Our children need to have their self-identity'
The Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which developed one of the U.S.'s strongest child and family services departments, held its annual ICWA Utteaka Nau Naawak, or Togetherness, Strong Roots conference in September. This year's theme was "Defending our Children and Families."
Tribal representatives from across the nation came to discuss best practices, learn new strategies and encourage each other as they work to keep families and tribal communities together.
Brianna Cupis, a navigator in Yaqui Tribe's social services department, meets with at-risk families in their home to assess how best to support them.
"It's important to build trust first," Cupis said. "Sometimes they don't know where to go to access services."
The tribe provides In-home health services, parenting training and other support to keep families together and functioning. Cupis, a tribal member and a mother of three, said she has helped about 20 families to date.
"I feel like it's giving back to my community," she said.
The Yaqui Tribe also takes a dedicated approach to keeping children within the community. The tribe employs case workers in its Pima and Maricopa county communities as well as the navigators. When the tribe learns a child is eligible to be enrolled, it acts fast to get them on tribal rolls.
The tribe also intervenes as soon as it learns that an enrolled or eligible tribal member child has been removed, acting to get that child placed with family or if necessary, a non-related tribal member family. The 15,000-member tribe is also a national leader in domestic violence prevention and prosecutions when violence occurs within a home.
Kate Fort, a law professor at Michigan State University and an acknowledged expert in ICWA, said enrolling children right away contributes to better custody outcomes.
"Even if you lose the case, the child is still a tribal citizen," she said.
Like other attorneys, child welfare workers and tribal members, Fort said she was nervous and concerned about how the Supreme Court would rule in the Brackeen case.
"But we did the hard work in the face of that nervousness," she said.
She and others at the conference said they never believed seven out of the nine justices would rule to uphold ICWA.
"Our children need to have their self-identity, they need to take part in our ceremonies," said Yaqui Council Member Mary Jane Buenamea. "Our children are proud to be in our sacred ceremonies; I can see it in their faces."
Victor Rocha said he's grateful for the law that enabled him and Patricia to give Cash a permanent home.
"This is the only place he's going to grow up in," said Rocha, who as a child experienced housing insecurity when his family moved repeatedly. "He's going to grow up with his cousins, with his friends, with his culture."
Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.
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