Header

The ICWA: 35 Years in and We Must Still Fight for Our Children

Terry L. Cross
11/8/13

Thirty-five years ago today, Congress enacted groundbreaking legislation, the impact of which has been arguably more profound than any other piece of federal Indian law in the modern era. On November 8, 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act, otherwise known as ICWA, became law. While recent national attention has highlighted the law’s role in child custody and adoption proceedings involving tribal citizens, less credit has been granted to ICWA for its wider affirmation of tribal sovereignty as a guaranteed and guiding tenet of federal law.

In ICWA, Congress affirmed tribal authority to protect American Indian children through their own laws, courts, and services. It recognized that tribal courts are of commensurate standing to state courts. ICWA established minimum standards for states to follow in issues of custody and adoptions, giving tribes the right to intervene in state court proceedings as full parties. In an extraordinary acknowledgment of tribal sovereign authority for the time, ICWA provided protection to all tribal citizens no matter where they resided. As such, ICWA served as a catalyst for subsequent legislation that further restored the capacity of tribes to govern themselves and reinforced the era of self-determination for tribal nations.

Yet all of these sovereignty-affirming provisions were not the intended purpose of ICWA. Rather, ICWA was aimed at stopping the inappropriate removal of our children from their parents, extended families, tribes, and culture by non-Indians. In the 1970s, studies documented the horrifying experiences of thousands of American Indian families: one out of every four of our children was being removed from their families. Of these, 85 percent were placed in non-Indian homes. Often such placement meant these children were cut off forever from loving extended families, their culture, community, and traditional way of life. The resulting trauma experienced by American Indian children, families, and entire tribes was as wounding as any assimilationist policy ever inflicted upon our people.

Thirty-five years later, we are still in a fight for our children. Today, with the international adoption industry suffering from tighter restrictions imposed by countries such as Russia and China, pressure to keep up with the demand for children has returned stateside. There is evidence of corrupt adoption practices caused by those whose motive is to prey upon the legitimate desire of childless couples to parent. Tragically, American Indian children are often targeted.

The recent cases of Baby Veronica and Baby Deseray are the most poignant evidence we have that ICWA is still as relevant today as it was at its passage. One only needs to examine who is leading the call for ICWA to be repealed to question the true motivation. Anti-tribal sovereignty groups, anti-Indian gaming interests, a few unscrupulous adoption attorneys and agencies, and a fringe religious group spearhead the opposition to ICWA. Through a smart public relations campaign they have controlled the ICWA narrative for the past two years with misleading, emotionally provocative, and racially biased messages. Too little has been said about the thousands of American Indian children who have been helped by ICWA.

It is time to send a message of our own to those who would target our children for removal for their own gain. To these people, I say stop. Stop putting adoptive parents in jeopardy of losing a child they want desperately. Stop ripping children from the arms of loving relatives. Stop violating the Indian Child Welfare Act for personal gain and profit. As American Indian people, we will bring the darkness of such acts into the light to protect our children. We will continue to advocate that ICWA, the federal law whose protections we are guaranteed as citizens of the United States and of sovereign tribal nations, is enforced. We will hold accountable those who believe they can violate it without consequence.

Thirty-five years ago today, Congress attempted to bring healing to our people by enacting the Indian Child Welfare Act. In doing so, they also acknowledged the legitimacy of tribal sovereignty and supported our self-determination. It is no wonder then, in this era when attacks upon tribal sovereignty abound, that this groundbreaking law that has halted so much profound trauma within Indian communities has been targeted for attack. Nonetheless, Indian Country is prepared to do everything in its power to see that ICWA continues to remain the law of the land. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

Terry L. Cross is the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and a member of the Seneca Nation.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

10

POST A COMMENT

Comments

Anonymous's picture
Good Lawyers are good at manipulating and changing written law's ; they will tell you that you read it wrong.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Gather people from all nation's is thee U.S and thous of the past if you can fine them and create a nother countcal of thee People like the Oregon countcal of the Poor was. they made thing happen that is still going. they allso helped write the law that is not being flowed ~~~LGW
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
White society's assumption that it provides a better parental environment for a child than the child's own blood kin & heritage must be challenged again. Bring it all to the light.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
my son has never seen his kid, because she won't let him isn't that against Indian Welfare Act?
Anonymous
metis22's picture
Then all the tribes put their differences aside and come together and really fight, as going to battle. The adoption industry won a battle with Veronica, not the war. What concerns me is the censorship of the mainstream news media in not reporting anything about Jared or Deseray, or another of the other babies in any states. We can only assume it's the advertising dollar means a lot more than journalism. That's why print media is dying and few are silly enough to trust the likes of CNN or Fox. Are our children important enough to actually come together and fight for rather than be picked off in divide and conquer tactics?
metis22
Anonymous's picture
ICWA does not help Indian families and it does hurt children. It would be good if all the groups could get together and discuss how to apply ICWA without hurting children. It is all a numbers game and politics. Taking children and placing them on reservations, when they were not removed from a reservation, especially when the Indian biological parent could not care less, if every bit as wrong as pre ICWA. This happens all the time. Was ICWA to create Indian families or to protect? Is ICWA revenge on people and a generation that had nothing to do with something that happened 40 years ago or more? And where are the Indian families ICWA is trying to preserve? Sadly they are caught up in drugs, alcohol, criminal lifestyles, and high suicide rates. The families are broken and we put children with them that they don't know, they don't want, and it only further fragments the Indian family. Meanwhile all the Tribal politicians on up the line in government yelling ICWA ICWA could not care less about the very dismal outcome of Indian children because of ICWA.
Anonymous
metis22's picture
The ICWA does help people and children - reservations at least allow people to stay together instead of being "individualized" into the poverty of slums. The original "ghettos" were a different name for reservation and the Harlem, NY ghetto was named after Haarlem, The Netherlands. Anonymous, you spew without facts. There is a sociology saying that there are no "problems" until we define them as such. Researching on my own, the adoption industry is fed by the foster care system - a system which has become a bureaucracy; in order to self-justify its' existence, there MUST be children in need of foster care, and by using "extrapolation" of the numbers now known (or served by the system) into what 'might' not be known, lying-with-statistics allows social agencies to deem there MUST be more "in need" children out there than already 'served' (taken) and the agencies/bureaucracies get more money, more staff which then must be justified by finding more "in need" children. Yes, there are children 'in need' but it is the bureaucratic nature to become a beast. This beast feeds the adoption industry beast, which has also grown from a service to a bureaucracy. Until 1st Peoples/US Indian Country comes together and works to fight both bureaucracies, families will be torn apart in the name of greed. This is something ALL Americans need to realize and fight for. The "shortage" of adoptable babies to grease the bank accounts of the likes of the Godwins will create worse injustices. Do you really think any sociologist would be brave enough to do a real study on the foster care system all over the country? It isn't just one state. People make money, sometimes their living, by finding child abuse, by being foster care parents and, as we have seen in high-profile cases, too often foster care is just a pretext to take children and legally put them in worse situations than they were in. To fight adoption abuse, we also have to fight foster care abuse.
metis22
Kevol's picture
To Anonymous on Sat Nov 10: Looks like you have been influenced by the anti-ICWA propaganda of Jessica Munday of Trio Solutions or Elizabeth Morris of the Christian Alliance of Indian Child Welfare. Your argument is based upon flawed assumptions and just plain ignorance. You say that Indian biological parents could not care less. If you are referring to Dusten Brown, you are blind. He fought for years for his Cherokee daughter! And ditto for the father of Baby Deseray! You say this happens "all the time." Where are your statistics? You have conveniently left out those Indian families who have BENEFITED from ICWA. And where do you get that Indian families "are caught up in drugs, alcohol, criminal lifestyles, and high suicide rates." We have more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the US who number among several million. What an absurd generalization! I suggest Anonymous on Nov 10 that you acquaint yourself with the many Native people who are physicians, lawyers. teachers, and social workers along with engineers and civic leader who are NOT caught up in drugs, alcohol, and whatever other vice you attribute to Native people. And by the way, many Indians are Christians and they fully support ICWA. So go peddle your propagnda somewhere else.
Kevol
Anonymous's picture
A step in the right direction would be for the Department of Justice to embrace ICWA and stand as advocates for Native children instead of being passive observers.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I have been on the other side as a Native Social Worker, in the 70's when the Act started and I got stepped on and put down by other Indian Social Workers, mainly because of wanting to receive that high income. I felt I was qualified to help after graduating from a State University. but dirty politics kicked in, it wans't for me. And working with the county Social workers as we were supposed to they wre even worse, I did meet some great people and they are few but they are out there in ICWA. It's like some workers get a fantistic reward for suspecting and accusing people of Child Abuse. But I did enjoy helping the children that I was able to at the time and I put my heart into all of my efforts.
Anonymous