“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).
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.
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.”