Robert McGhee, treasurer of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and Seanna Piper Jordan, a Native Youth affected by the foster care system, at the June 6 Center for Native American Youth panel discussion on Indian child welfare (Center for Native American Youth)

Center for Native American Youth Addresses Foster Care ‘Scandal’

Vincent Schilling

“This afternoon we are having a discussion about scandal. It is not about Benghazi, it's not about the IRS, or phone records of the Associated Press or Fox News; it's about scandal,” said former Senator Byron Dorgan, founder and chairman of the Center for Native American Youth, during the Center’s June 6 event, “Indian Child Welfare—Highlighting the Invisible” at the Aspen Institute in Washington D.C.

“It's not on the front page this morning, it doesn't lead the news—it is about some children in this country, particularly about the [Native] children in the foster care system that we want to talk to you about,” Dorgan added. “There is a very significant problem, and that is the movement of Indian children in and out of foster care around this country in ways that have been pretty unsettling and unhealthy for their lives. There are a lot of invisible Indian children out there."

Dorgan also cited unsettling statistics. “Here’s an example: Indians [account for] about 1.6 percent of the population of Minnesota, yet [make up] 16 percent of the kids in foster care. They are 17 percent of the population in Alaska and 55 percent of the population in foster care.”

Event panelists included Hilary Tompkins (Navajo), solicitor of the Department of the Interior, Robert McGhee, treasurer of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and Seanna Piper Jordan, a Native Youth affected by the foster care system. The group shared their personal experiences with the foster care system, their struggles with Indian identity and their thoughts on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Former Senator Byron Dorgan, right, speaks with Seanna Piper Jordan, a Native Youth affected by the foster care system (Center for Native American Youth)

Hilary Tompkins, who was born on the Navajo reservation but was placed into a non-Indian in the 1960s, said the issue of ICWA was something that was “near and dear to her heart.”

“It was tricky growing up in southern New Jersey, I never saw another Indian until I was 15. I didn't know my culture clan system or language. You feel very alone,” said Tompkins.

During the discussion, Dorgan asked Tompkins which government agency was responsible for overseeing ICWA.

“The Indian Child Welfare Act has various roles for the Department of Interior, where we can provide grants to tribes both on and off reservations to run ICWA programs and monitor cases,” Tompkins said. “We are also able to ensure that when a child custody proceeding involves an Indian child and starts in the state court process—there are certain requirements about giving notice to the tribe and parents.”

“Health and Human Services works on title 4 grants and funding to states to deal with placement issues and social services and child welfare issues,” Tompkins continued. “There are those programs, and it is really important to work with state courts. It is a federal law that requires compliance.”

“It is a shared authority; we have been recently meeting to spearhead an intergovernmental effort to ensure compliance,” he added.

Seanna Piper Jordan (Hawaiian/Blackfoot), who was a product of the foster care system and has struggled throughout her life, she said, expressed her support of ICWA from a cultural standpoint.

“When you are talking about native children and American Indian culture, a lot of people do not understand that you feel as though you are part a larger picture. You feel like you are part of a very extended family network that is there for you. It has its own language, its own traditions … that make you feel like you fit," said Jordan.

Though Jordan expressed difficulties she faced in college and not being Indian enough amongst some of her peers, Dorgan commended Jordan's accomplishments, “With all of the struggles, this woman just graduated from Yale University. She is remarkable.

Hilary Tompkins (Navajo), solicitor of the Department of the Interior (Center for Native American Youth)

Panelist Robert McGhee added to the conversation by stating that the hundreds of kids in foster care could benefit from tribal members that decided to become foster parents.

“It is shameful what is happening in this country,” said Dorgan. “This is not some mysterious illness for which we do not know the cure. We know kids are being abused and being pulled from their homes and sent halfway across the country. (There are) kids that are being shuttled from foster home to foster home and are abused. And then there is this ignorance called sequestration which cuts the funding for a shelter just as it cuts funding for every other program including the most wasteful program.”

“I am angry about this,” said Dorgan. “And I know you are as well. I don't want the fact that we are reasonable to mask the understanding. There is an urgency, there are kids dying and there are kids whose lives are at stake.”

There are kids that will be changed forever because of bad decisions made in a circumstance where no one is watching.”

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Jbrowneagle's picture
Submitted by Jbrowneagle on
I've been directly involved as a former ICWA case worker, Tribal Administrator and Tribal Chairman. The main problem is the Congressional funding and the DOI/BIA's lack of real support for Tribes ICWA funding and the main area of funding that was neglected was to help tribes provide our own group homes and development and establishment of Native American Foster Parents on the Reservations. Once the child is place in a non-Indian home their cultural connections is dis-connected as most non-Indian providers has no idea of tribal culture and spirituality and most are just view the children as income! On a daily basis in California ICWA is violated by County Judges who don't understand or comply with the law. "All My Relations"

David Laughing Horse Robinson's picture
David Laughing ...
Submitted by David Laughing ... on
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a very positive for Tribes but that it is only good for Federally Recognized Tribes. The Kawaiisu Tribe of Tejon is a Treaty Tribe in California and has over 100,000 Citizens yet we are not a Federally Recognized Tribe which means we do not appear on the Federal Register. Congress and the President of the U.S. Recognize the Kawaiisu but this little DOI and BIA does not. Even the United Nations Recognize the Kawaiisu but these two agencies that do not appear in the U.S. Constitution have the unlawful power to say and do as they please. The ICWA does not apply to the Kawaiisu Tribe because this Act only applies to Tribes that are dominated and ran by the DOI and BIA. Our Children are having genocide committed onto them on a regular basis. They are sold and traded off to non-Indians only and how is the Tribe's existence to continue when you kill our Culture through our Children? Too bad America has such a hate for us!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Modern day systematic political and economical and spiritual genocide and persecution for the last 500yrs., willingly by the United States of America and the American Taxpayers!

Native_1's picture
Submitted by Native_1 on
I believe in order to get this 'scandal' under control, we first need to address the tremendous need for Safer Sex / Birth Control programs in Indian Schools, Youth Centers and any other places where Native Youths gather. Instead of pointing fingers at organizations and people who we believe are abusing our children, we need to start at the beginning. We must first start at the beginning of a young person's life and educate them about Safer Sex and Birth Control. Every young person is going to have sex regardless of how many times they are told not to. Sex is a fact of life and unless they are armed with life saving information, there are going to be unwanted children born into unfit households. It is impossible for a child to be raised in a house where no one is working, there is no income, alcohol and drugs are freely used and gang activity is present. One of the reasons these kids are being taken out of their birth homes is because their young parents are ignorant to the fact of how children are to be raised. While many like to fall back on the belief of our culture that the entire family is involved in raising the young. That is not always possible nor is it a good idea for young kids to start having kids thinking they can hand them off to their parents and grandparents and continue on with their lives. There is no concept of personal responsibiity whatsoever. There needs to be Safe Sex education programs everywhere to get this information into their heads. This not only prevents unwanted children, but can save their young lives from the horrors of HIV/AIDS and other life threatening STDs. While progress is being made in finding a cure for the virus, it is still a long way off. Even when one is developed we all know Indian people will be amongst the last to receive the benefits of one. These young parents to be need to be taught how to use condoms every time they engage in sexual activity. This cannot be stressed enough as these children who are in the foster care system came from children themselves....children who did not have the proper Safe Sex information available to them before they become active. Without this education and condoms being made available in schools, after school programs and recreation areas, this 'scandal' will continue to go unchecked and our children will never be helped.

Native_1's picture
Submitted by Native_1 on
Another thing I wanted to comment on is why are Non-Indian households that bad a thing? The story tells about a young woman who was taken out of her original home away from her birth family who then went on to lead a very successful life, even graduating from an Ivy League University. Obviously there are no Native families able to care for foster kids, so where else are these unwanted kids supposed to go? Even though they are being raised outside of the Tribal Family, their chances at living a good solid life where they will receive everything needed to be able to get out of the poverty stricken, alcohol and drug fueled homes are greatly increased. I too was taken out of my own home and was raised in a Non Indian household where I was shown much love. I was able to receive a college education and luckily the family who raised me was honest enough to tell me about my origins. While I never cared to research my family and who birthed me, I still am just as proud of my Native American heritage and culture. My adoptive family raised me to always remember where I came from and how I got to where I am today. They did their homework and provided me with values similar to those that are present in Native households. I respect my elders, hold our traditions close to my heart and am proud to be a Lakota Sioux man. Instead of complaining about white people raising our unwanted young, perhaps until we are able to properly educate Native families about how to properly raise their children, we should embrace those white families who came forward and provided everything needed for young children to be successful. So it is all up to Native Americans to get it together and start educating their young men and women about Safe Sex and the dangers of STDs. The consequences of not practicing Safe Sex is not only about having unwanted children but it could even save their lives. Place focus on Education, not only Sex Education but education of all kinds that give these young people a real chance at a successful and full life. It is up to us to see that our young are taken care of and if it means preventing unwanted children as a first step, I think that is the right first step to take! And to those Natives who have built a good life for themselves, it is up to you to get involved to save our children and give them the proper start in life. Stop crying out loud about how White people are ruining our culture and instead focus on doing what you can do to improve the lives of all of our people and giving them the tools they need to lead a good, honest life where they will be able to look back and honestly say "I am glad I am a Native American".

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Genocide!!!!! 21st Century modern day Institutional systematic oppression, repression, cultural and racist genocide of all First Nations of this Western Hemisphere!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Modern Day Genocide of all First Nations Peoples of Turtle Island, only to steal, kill and destroy want their european ancestors didn't finish before hand, but this generation of white domination, and systematic oppression and is the most dangerous time, ever, in the history of the human race!!!!!

MaryAnn Johnson's picture
MaryAnn Johnson
Submitted by MaryAnn Johnson on
Thank you for being strong enough to look at a topic that has often been left unsaid. As a non-Indian teaching in a highly native population in Rapid City, South Dakota, it always made me sad to see the traditions being left behind in lieu of assimilation. I would encourage the students to really look at who they are based on where they came from. Each of us is from somewhere and though we are now all American's we need to teach and instill a pride in our children so that they know where they came from.