I consume a lot of content, usually at breakneck speed. Today I heard an abridged story that appeared like a common child custody case going to court. When I listened more closely, I had to replay the story to make sure I was hearing the facts correctly. The facts were so unbelievable, I had to go to the long form source material where unbelievable became an understatement.
Here’s the story as reported in the New York Times in a nutshell.
A white foster family is caring for a Native American child. The court ruled the child’s Cherokee dad and Navajo mom relinquish their parental rights. The foster family wanted to adopt the child. By federal law, white families can’t adopt native American children. The white family is suing, and the case will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are so many amazing aspects to this case.
- In 1879 native America children were pulled from reservations around the country and sent to the Carlise Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania where not so nice things were going on. (I learned of this place in the epilogue of the book ‘Dread Nation’ by Justina Ireland which I reviewed last summer. This school inspired her book.)
- From 1958 to 1967, nearly 400 Indian children from Western states were sent with white families nationwide.
- In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to protect “the best interests of Indian children” and to promote the stability of tribes and Indian families. At the time, studies showed that 25 percent to 35 percent of American Indian children were being placed in foster homes, with 85 percent of those outside their tribal communities.
Let’s stop here for a moment. The Native Americans got a law passed to prevent the removal of their children by social workers, who would relocate them in missionary schools and with white adoptive families. That’s why this white family can’t adopt this Native American child. The 40-year-old law is in place to give priority to Native families, to reinforce the children’s tribal identity.
Indeed, the pillars of the law — giving services to shattered families to avoid prolonged foster care; placing children with relatives rather than strangers; acknowledging cultural identity — have been called a “gold standard” by leading child welfare agencies.
If there is a Native family willing to adopt this child, why is the white family fighting so hard to keep him – so hard in fact that it will likely change all race related laws in this country if they win? This case goes way beyond this one little boy.
Legal scholars say that if the rationale for striking down the law survives, it could also threaten laws that guard tribal casinos and water and land rights. And the potential ramifications reach far beyond the tribes: If the law falls for race-based, equal-protection reasons, legal experts say, many affirmative action practices might become vulnerable as well.
I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around how easily black children are placed in white foster homes and adopted by white parents with no regard to black culture. How wonderful that the Native Americans could fight to have the Indian Child Welfare Act law passed in an attempt to keep their families together which helps keep their culture alive. The Native Americans have been successful under the rule of law to hold on to their children for the purpose of not diluting their values and culture with white values and culture.
I won’t dismiss that the white family wouldn’t be great providers for the boy, but to know there is a law giving the Native American community first shot at finding a suitable Native American home for children who can’t be cared for by their parents seems like the most humane way to handle these situations. It’s been working for 40-years.
Anyone who has ever been on a reservation will witness how strong the Native American culture is kept alive. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for African American culture as we’ve assimilated so much into the mainstream culture over the years.
It looks like this 40-year-old practice protecting Native Americans is on the way out and is described in biblical terms in the NYT article…
Ultimately, the dispute is something of a modern Solomonic parable, with two mothers — the tribe and the state — fighting over who has claim to Native American children.