Indian Child Welfare Act, three interviews; part two

An interview with Indian-child-welfare advocate Frank LaMere. A version of this article was published in Indian Country Today in February 2012. It was part of a year-long project supported by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

Frank LaMere, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of the Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa, is a longtime advocate for Indian child welfare who works with many Native parents and families. He talked about what’s good, what’s bad and what needs to be done in an issue that is critical to the survival of the nation’s Native communities.

Has the perception of Indian child welfare changed since the recent NPR series exposing South Dakota’s IWCA problems or the CNN story on the Cherokee father who regained custody of his daughter via ICWA?
The media stories you mention were shared widely, and I feel good about that—even though the CNN story was critical of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The exposure brought attention to the plight of our children and inspired members of Congress to ask for an investigation of South Dakota. I wrote to the legislators involved and told them, “Don’t stop there.” South Dakota has problems, but so does the rest of the country. They should investigate every jurisdiction in every state. Here in Iowa, the social services department of Woodbury County [surrounding Sioux City] has made progress, but it’s just one of our 99 counties. Many in Iowa would still do an end-run around ICWA.

Frank LaMere.
Was the CNN story correct in stressing the emotional disruption of removing a child from a familiar setting?
Indian families have endured exactly this kind of disruption hundreds of thousands of times for generations. That’s the grim reality. We have to applaud the young Cherokee father for persevering and those in the courts for reuniting him with his child.

Why do states that seem to comply with ICWA—or at least seem to try—still have high numbers of Native children in foster care?
We in Iowa are trying to better understand those numbers. Native families were not identified as such in the past, and perhaps now that we’ve drawn attention to them and are identifying them as such, the numbers are rising for that reason. Additional data I want is tracking of individual social workers’ records of pulling our families apart—or keeping them together. Once we have these numbers, we need to ask what their agencies are going to do about it. This needs to happen everywhere, and it needs to happen now.

How does this play out on a family-by-family basis?
I sit in on many meetings to determine the fate of Native families—along with the judges, lawyers, social workers and others involved—and I observe that they do not apply objective standards. If one standard was applied to all, Native children would go home more often than not. Time after time in these meetings, the Native parent has solved the issue—typically alcohol or drugs—that caused the children to be taken away. The parent proudly announces, “I’ve been sober for 22 months,” or what have you. We all congratulate them on their new wellness, then when that conversation dies down, a social worker inevitably says, “Well, yes, but…,” and raises a new issue. He or she may bring up a long-resolved problem from, literally, 20 years before, or something new. At a recent meeting, a social worker announced she’d found dirty dishes in the sink during her last visit to the mother’s home, so the mother shouldn’t get her kids back. I became unglued. I stressed that the mother didn’t lose her children over dirty dishes, and they couldn’t be kept from her for this reason. I deal with this kind of thing every single week.

How does a Native parent fare in child-custody matters when he or she faces a non-Native parent?
Generally not well. Right now, I’m dealing with the worst case I’ve ever seen and the best example of how the system can fail our families. Two severely disabled Native children were taken from their white father, a “founded,” that is proven, child abuser. After a crisis, during which one child ended up in the hospital, the court gave the youngsters temporarily to their Native mother. Now the state of Iowa has decided to reunite the children with the father, and the mother fears for her children’s lives. If I, or any Native man, did to a child what that white father did to his children, we would be incarcerated for many years. This is about old attitudes that make it tough for our Native families to get justice and to convince courts that ICWA, a federal statute, must be heeded.

Do states have a financial incentive to ignore ICWA?
It’s a conspiracy of silence. Everyone knows our children feed the child-welfare system. They have for a long time and will continue to do so, because the funding is set up that way [with more children meaning greater funding]. But those who work for the system won’t speak up. Beyond that, many social workers and courts nationwide feel they know better than we do about what’s good for our children. It remains for Native people to speak up. We must keep blowing the whistle on the child-welfare system, to local, state and national lawmakers. Only then will we have a chance to keep our families intact.

Is this what Four Directions does?
We at Four Directions Community Center routinely make people in the child-welfare system uncomfortable. Nothing changes until someone feels uncomfortable. That includes ourselves. It is hard to confront those who control the systems that control our lives, but we must. Our children and their futures are in jeopardy. We have a long way to go, but we will prevail.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy of Frank LaMere.