Fighting for the children: Iowa Native leaders protest child-welfare practices

Published in Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Native American children swept up in the Iowa child-welfare system face perils ranging from loss of culture to death, said Vicky Apala-Cuevas, Oglala Lakota, a member of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs. Apala-Cuevas spoke at a commission meeting in Sioux City, Iowa. The commission, a division of the state’s department of human rights, recently met with the state’s attorney general about several issues, including the disproportionately high rate at which Indian children are taken from their parents and doled out to non-Native foster and adoptive families. 

The problem occurs throughout Iowa, but the disparities are worst in the county that includes Sioux City, according to Frank LaMere, Winnebago, shown here. He is director of the Four Directions Community Center, a local advocacy group, which hosted the commission. “In Woodbury County, these policies have ravaged the Native community. Indian families have been torn apart, thanks to collusion among attorneys, adoption agencies, and others,” he said. “Their actions are sinister at best, criminal at worst.”

LaMere’s organization holds the annual Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the reaction of the attorney general, Tom Miller. “We built bridges in the meeting, and the dialogue will continue.”

Apala-Cuevas was less sanguine. “The attorney general said he was on our side but that there was not a great deal he could do at this time. Apparently the Iowa and federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) laws have no teeth. I was very disappointed. There are penalties for illegal parking, but nothing when it comes to separating Indian children from their families.”

Several Indian youngsters have died in foster care in recent years, with little notice in the media or among the public at large, said LaMere. In contrast, he said, the state “came unglued” in an equally tragic situation, when a white toddler died in a manner that social-services agencies should have been able to prevent.

A pattern that an Iowa newspaper, the Quad-City Times, uncovered in a multi-article investigative report  — with adoption attorneys shuttling pregnant women and then their newborns among several states to cover unethical and illegal practices — occurs within the state of Iowa as well, said LaMere. “It appears that Native kids are moved to rural counties, where the federal and state ICWA laws are not understood or perhaps not known. Judges in those places can be persuaded to hand over our children to adoptive or foster parents. That’s not all, though. Unscrupulous attorneys and officials find even more ways to do an end-run around Iowa’s department of human services, which is on our side. We need an investigation of these practices.”

Indian children fall prey to the system for various reasons, according to Apala-Cuevas. For one, non-Native people involved in their cases may not understand the extended family and larger tribal community to which an Indian child belongs, or may choose to ignore these relationships.

Money plays a part as well. Tens of thousands of dollars in fees may be at stake for attorneys and other facilitators when an adoption occurs, according to the Quad-City Times report. Native children appear to be especially prized by prospective parents, increasing the likelihood they’ll be snapped up by a corrupt adoption agency or attorney, said Apala-Cuevas.

Assistant attorney general Charles Phillips, who works with the state’s social-services department and multiple tribes (whether or not they are resident in Iowa), pointed to the need for more Native American families with whom Indian children can be housed. “It’s essential to place a child quickly if he or she needs to be protected, and that can run up against the need for a culturally appropriate situation. There are parts of the state in which strides have been made toward shifting children to tribal courts and tribal placements more efficiently.”

Four Directions Community Center has held gatherings for survivors, including hours of testimony from children who had been reunited with their birth families, said Apala-Cuevas. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

On August 16th and 17th, the organization will hold public hearings on the issue, according to LaMere. “We’ll talk about ICWA and the way it’s ignored in Iowa, we’ll discuss the possibility of strengthening our state law legislatively, and much more. Attorneys general in other states also need to know this is a problem. We have to protect our children, here and across the country.”

On November 24, the center will hold its eighth memorial march to bring attention to the issue. Said Apala-Cuevas: “Our children are not up for grabs.”

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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