The Sioux City Human Rights Commission honored LaMere in December.

Advocate Frank LaMere Talks About Battles Shaping Indian Child Welfare

Stephanie Woodard
2/14/12

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has been in the news lately. A National Public Radio (NPR) series exposed horrific child-welfare injustices in South Dakota, while two CNN stories—one on the return of an infant boy to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and another on the return of a baby girl to her Cherokee father—criticized the law, and then-CNN anchor Campbell Brown added some scathing commentary. We went to Frank LaMere, member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of the Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa, for a reading on how perceptions of ICWA are changing and what still needs to happen to ensure state social-services departments and courts nationwide understand and fulfill its requirements. LaMere is a longtime advocate for Indian child welfare who works on a daily basis with Native families.

Has recent coverage of ICWA adversely affected the attitude toward Indian child welfare?

LaMere: The exposure brought attention to the plight of our children, and I am glad of that. As a result of the NPR coverage, members of Congress were inspired 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.

What did you think of CNN’s take on ICWA?

CNN and Campbell Brown need a reality check! Brown, as a mother, said she could not imagine the hurt a white family felt when their Indian child was returned to his people. Why could she not also imagine the hurt thousands of Native families feel right now, knowing their children will cry themselves to sleep tonight because someone did an end run of ICWA and stole their children under the “color of law”? Over the generations, hundreds of thousands of Indian families have endured this pain. That’s the grim reality. We must engage and educate ICWA detractors, and we must remind them that the Indian Child Welfare Act is the law of the land—whether they like it or not. And we must applaud the tribes and parents in these recent cases for persevering and those in the courts for reuniting them with the children.

Why do even states that seem to comply with ICWA—or at least seem to try—still have relatively 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 a Native parent fare in child-custody matters when facing 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. 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.

Can you give some examples of what Native parents face?

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 were 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 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 week.

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 generating 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 us. 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.

Click here to read our Q&A with Diane Garreau, ICWA director for South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

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terrypowless's picture
terrypowless
Submitted by terrypowless on
wont get fooled again. natives are winning million dollar court battles thats turning into the billions & trillions...

whatatravesty's picture
whatatravesty
Submitted by whatatravesty on
As an American taxpayer it should infuriate people that their tax dollars are being spent to perpetuate the countless misapplications of the ICWA law. Even the author of the law admitted that in the case of Veronica Rose Capobianco case it was misused. Then of course,after political pressure recounted his original statement.Innocent children and families are being destroyed by a bureaucracy whose motives ignore the personal rights of those involved. Why should one heritage trump another?The very idea that a child can be taken from all that she knows after 2 yrs because of less than 1% native blood is a archaic and insensitive to her basic needs. For you to say that "the Indian Child Welfare Act is the law of the land—whether they like it or not" only substantiates my assessment. Just because something is"law" doesn't mean it's right. It used to be allowed by "law" to own another human being. This law is flawed and needs to be revised. The bureaucracy involved needs to be accountable for the travesty inflicted on these families.LET VERONICA GO HOME!

davidquincy2's picture
davidquincy2
Submitted by davidquincy2 on
Everything I have read on the Brown case seems to be unfairly biased against the father and ICWA. There seems to be an assumption that this child would be better off with the adoptive parents. I think that this assumption derives from the idea o...f white privilage, the belief that because the adopted parents are white, fairly well to do, that they will provide a better life for this child and that the father and his family because they Indian would not. It seems like everytime an non-indian couple gets stoped from adopting Indian babies, there comes this hue and cry to repeal ICWA, with the argument that the law is being abused and not being used the way it was originally intended, well, I believe it is exactly being used as intended. It is state child welfare systems, adoption agencies, and non-indian adoptive parents who are trying to circumvent ICWA that are abusing the law. This law does not need to be revised, it does need to be enforced, with states held accountable for not following it. Finally, VERONICA IS HOME!

rainchild3's picture
rainchild3
Submitted by rainchild3 on
I hate to hear how foster children are not returned to their parents after the parent has cleaned up their act. Although, if you get into alcohol and drugs and things of that nature, I'm pretty sure everyone else in this world has to suffer the consequences. Makes some better choices people. I'm not quite sure what assumption you are talking about David. No where on the SVR website or fb page does it talk about Veronica being better off because "of the white adopting family". That is something YOU are assuming off of your own apparent stereotyping. No where did the C's abuse the law. They followed all adoption guidelines. Dusten is the one who is trying to abuse the ICWA law. She would be better off with her adoptping family because they have raised her from birth and her father didn't want her in the first place. Plain and simple. And to say that the "ICWA is the law of the land, whether they like it or not" is ridiculous and archaic. If that is the case, South Carolina should have ruled in favor of the adopting family because the "laws" state that once the father waives his parental rights, the child is free to adopt. The law is the law -whether the bio father liked it or not. Send Veronica home!

janellehaffner's picture
janellehaffner
Submitted by janellehaffner on
Two years ago, a Cherokee child named Veronica was born. Her father is a member of the Cherokee Nation and an Iraqi war vet. While preparing to deploy to Iraq, he signed papers that he believed were related to power of attorney. Four months later, JAG informed him that they were adoption papers and that h...is daughter had been adopted to a couple in South Carolina. He was engaged to Veronica's biological mother so he had no reason not to trust her. Veronica's father Dusten filed for custody when Veronica was four months old. Because Veronica is Cherokee, the adoption to the Capobianco family was illegal because only the tribe has control over Veronica's welfare and the law orders that Cherokee children be placed with biological family or another tribe member (the Capobiancos were neither). After an 18 month legal battle, Veronica was finally returned to her father. Dusten and Veronica's home has been vandalized by Capobiancos' supporters and the Capobiancos have received thousands in donations so they may illegally attempt to remove Veronica from Dusten's care yet again. Please visit Keep Veronica Home on Facebook and support them. ?

c4talyst's picture
c4talyst
Submitted by c4talyst on
In the Capobianco case, an attorney for the Cherokee Nation stood in court and said that Veronica's mental and emotional welfare was less important than her affiliation with the tribe. Veronica is less than 1% Cherokee. This is what Frank supports.

janellehaffner's picture
janellehaffner
Submitted by janellehaffner on
that is very untrue, Dusten has been fighting for her since she was 4 months old, some need to understand what ICWA is and why it is needed, for more info "keep veronica home" is the support page for Dusten Brown

donnaclayton's picture
donnaclayton
Submitted by donnaclayton on
David I do agree with you. I believe this case is a he said she said. No one knows what happen between the parents of Veronica expect them. The ruling was sealed so we really do not know what else the judge used to make this ruling. The judge had heard all of the arguments and evidence and then ruled. Dusten did not give up his child for adoption the bio mom did that. But you are right Veronica is home!!!!

davidquincy2's picture
davidquincy2
Submitted by davidquincy2 on
My assumption comes from reading news articles about this case and most especially from the attendent blog postings, which in their worst rants are very racist, though there are voices of reasons, even experts that know the details of ICWA. Assuming from such sources I know can be fraught with the danger of misconstuing the intent of the authors. For example your opening statement regarding Alcohol and Drug use, could almost make a person assume that you are stating that the this was a factor in this case, which, of course, there is no documentation that this is the case. ICWA is the law of the land, and even if the Anti-Indian crowd does manage to get the law repealed (pretty unlikely), it would not return Veronica to her adoptive parents, as the law was in force when the decision was made to return her home to her father.

whatatravesty's picture
whatatravesty
Submitted by whatatravesty on
I am constantly amazed at the lack of concern for this child's emotional welfare. It's an insult to my intelligence to imply that Mr. Brown didnt know what he was signing. What would take a man 4 mo. to undertand? Why should one heritage trump another? This rational is archaic, racist and ignorant. If the ICWA hadn't been involved Veronica would be home in her room with the ONLY people that have supported her since BEFORE she was born. The Brown's continue to show their lack of interest for her emotional wellbeing by forbidding any contact with the people SHE views as her parents.Please dont come back with that "they didnt let Brown see her"BS. She DID NOT KNOW HIM. He took no REAL interest in supporting the bio Mom or Veronica.It's really very sad and frustrating to see such lack of accountability by our government.No wonder we're in such a mess. THis law was not intended for this case. This child was NEVER in foster care. She has a loving,stabile Mother and Father that have NEVER waivered in their love and support.The best interest of Veronica is to be with those that were there when she took her first breath not with a single man, living with his parents thats fathered 3 children with 3 different women.Do YOU consider this a good situation for ANY child?????If he really wants to "father" her he'll do whats right and let her go home

proudojibwedaddy's picture
proudojibwedaddy
Submitted by proudojibwedaddy on
OH now she is less then 1%.. its kinda weird how you all change it when you want to. NO ONE knows how much NDN they are except them. Blood quantum dont matter if they are enough to be enrolled and if you knew what you were talking about you would know this. She is adjusted well and is happy so get over it. We seen video and a picture of her enjoying NDN culture night. She is a NDN child in an established NDN family. So ICWA was rightfully applied.

proudojibwedaddy's picture
proudojibwedaddy
Submitted by proudojibwedaddy on
Janelle.very well said!!!

ed123's picture
ed123
Submitted by ed123 on
If everyone is so sure that Mr. Brown did not want to be a parent then why was he not involved in the adoption plan from the very beginning? Unfortunately in this country women are encouraged by agencies and attorneys to not involve the father, especially those who may interfere with a placement. An ethical placement occurs when BOTH parents are in agreement of an adoption plan, when BOTH parents receive counseling, and when BOTH parents sign the same consent or TPR after the birth of child. Were these things offered to Mr. Brown? I haven't read where they were and it appears that everyone knew where he could be found.

moroccantreasures's picture
moroccantreasures
Submitted by moroccantreasures on
Just because you dont want to follow laws, doesnt make the laws wrong! Why are you posting your bigotry on this site anyway.

moroccantreasures's picture
moroccantreasures
Submitted by moroccantreasures on
It is a law in the USA which is technically land. Generally people follow laws and when they do not, stuff like THIS happens. Perhaps in their next attempt at a high risk infant adoption they will precure a better adoption agency and dot their i's and cross their t's. Since when do non relatives that can raise lots of money trump a sibling to the child or relatives? This isnt about fundraising!!!

moroccantreasures's picture
moroccantreasures
Submitted by moroccantreasures on
Why dont the potential adoptive parents want the records made public then? When the biological father does? What do THEY have to HIDE?! You obviously have never been a foster parent, kids get moved around so many times and adjust and very few ever get attachment disorders.

moroccantreasures's picture
moroccantreasures
Submitted by moroccantreasures on
Would you stop with your bigorty and % you cant even get it right.

britelite's picture
britelite
Submitted by britelite on
“Imagine” I can’t imagine how hard it was working 10hr shifts everyday trying to prep for the baby’s birth and learning she would not receive any support from her father in the hard times. I can’t imagine how hard it was for the little girl’s mommy to make a decision for her to be with the loving arms of the adoptive parents because she couldn’t make it on her own. I cannot imagine how hard it was receiving the news that the father was gathering the papers to sign his right’s away bringing the painful decision one step closer. I cannot imagine how hard it was to see getting clothing out of a house was more important than this little child. I cannot imagine how hard it was to know the father changed his mind 4 months later. I cannot imagine how hard it was to know the father was gaining custody of the baby, after she signed her rights away, taking her completely out of the picture of an open adoption leaving her with no rights. I cannot imagine how the untruths, a person’s war status, and using a person’s heritage as a tool to get custody hurt. I cannot imagine how it must feel complete strangers walking in and telling the story based off hearsay from close family friends when they were not there to witness anything. I cannot imagine how painful it is to the baby’s large adoptive family losing her New Year’s Eve. I cannot imagine how bad the baby misses her mommy and daddy, cousins, uncles, grandpas and grandmas, swimming in the ocean, playing on the beach and the life in South Carolina. I cannot imagine how badly the baby misses her cousin taking her pictures all the time with the smiles and the laughs. I can imagine how much this baby is loved and her rights are supported by over the 20,000+ supporters and 7,000+ social media supporters. No matter what anyone says, this support will never change, not now, not tomorrow, not years down the road, and maybe not in this lifetime.

c4talyst's picture
c4talyst
Submitted by c4talyst on
I find it entertaining that both of you focuses on my statement pertaining to heritage, and completely failed to address the wording used by the Cherokee Nation attorney. None of you have the best interests of children at heart, and your own words just proved it!

c4talyst's picture
c4talyst
Submitted by c4talyst on
David, one thing we can all agree on: If Dusten had been a man to begin with, and made the decision to be a father to his daughter, none of us would be here having this discussion. Let's not forget that Dusten said in court that he had never been involved with the Cherokee Nation, and only accepted their help so that ICWA could be used to take custody of his daughter. That's what YOU support! :^ D

c4talyst's picture
c4talyst
Submitted by c4talyst on
Unfortunately for moroccan, many of us have seen the text messages Dusten sent to the biological mother, where he specifically says he's ready to sign away his rights. Nice try though.

c4talyst's picture
c4talyst
Submitted by c4talyst on
LoL...so rational people who do their own research and come to the intelligent conclusion that the ICWA has been misused in the past and has actually put children in dangerous situations are...wait for it...ANTI-INDIAN. LOL...nice try. You are supporting a law for which there is CLEAR EVIDENCE that it has hurt children. According to YOU (by way of your support) children are the PROPERTY OF THE TRIBE. Debate that if you can.

gsevalikova's picture
gsevalikova
Submitted by gsevalikova on
My best friend,Fly,would certainly wiegh in on this subject. He was Native,and his mother had severe alcohol issues throughout her life. He was taken away by the state at 5 years old. He had rickets, did not know letters,colors the difference between an apple or an orange. Fetal alcohol syndrome and neglect caused this. the foster care system was a nightmare,and adoptive parents(white Catholics) were also. They only adopted him to get live- in houseboy for old age. His material needs were met,but those people were cold,and Fly felt starved for love,and had abandonment issues. His mother was allowed to visit him,if she was sober. She died when he was 13. she shot herself. We think boarding schools must have played a major role in her dysfunction. My friend started taking lots of vitamins and supplements to heal his brainand it does work(Focus Factor is one example)and quit drugs and booze years before. He'd started drinking at 10,cigs too. Abuse and neglect damage the brain and "rewire" it,but supplements and neurofeedback heal it. PTSD is what he had ADHD

gsevalikova's picture
gsevalikova
Submitted by gsevalikova on
As regards the ICWA has anyone considered that because those boarding schools ruined the mental health of so many,and America has the worst addiction rates in the industrialized nations anyway, why is there no attempt to treat for PTSD for any tribe member who asks for-that is if you know you have the need. People not aware of the problem DON'T know likewise they may not be aware of how child abuse and neglect "rewire" the pathways inside the brain and damage it. Like fetal alcohol syndrome, which my best friend was born with his mother was a heavy drinker,and drank before and after ihs birth. She really didn 't want him,but he was born when abortion was illegal,too expensive for HER to get with the little money she had then. So when he arrived, she took out her rage at the father out on HIM. He was taken by the state when he was 5. Those foster parents he had were awful,before he got adopted at 6. The adoptive parents wanted a grow-your-own-caretaker, he was starved for love and affection,even though his material needs were met very well. Point being,if these issues aren't dealt with Native kids will keep going through what Fly went through-leave dysfunctioning parents for more of the same. He wound up with bad marriages and was a lousy father,though absolutely, trauma therapy and brain food(NEUTRACEUTICLES)as in supplements like Focus factor would have been life changing. He eventually did this,later is better than never. I can't help but wonder how his troubled mother's life would have ended over the years(dead at 36 from a self-inflicted gunshot)had she got such help in time. My friend much preferred a reformed/healed mother to those cold-fish white catholics who took over instead!! Please look up online brain supplements and organic food benefits with native families/kids/babies in mind. And always promote breast feeding while taking the supplements too. asians ARE smarter than whites and that's how it's done. Secret's in the FOODS/SUPPLEMENTS, people.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
The native american spirit is the beautiful fire of sun and star of mercy and truth. Most of the comments I have read relate the message of parents seeking their children, and the tribes protecting their children, but those babies, toddlers, have in them the same spirit, unyielding and strong to bond with their own common cord, and for the ones who cannot yet speak the spirit protects and touches the hearts to move in the best interest of the young firestar glitter which marvels in us all, a proud nation of the most coveted land on earth and heaven.
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