11, No. 2
The Voices of Zak's Aunt and Uncle
An Indian Family Speaks about ICWA
Reprinted, with permission, from A Family’s Guide to the Child Welfare System
When we first found out that our nephew, Zak, (my brother’s 2-year-old son) was in foster care, we weren’t sure what to do. He was in another state and his parents had been accused of physically abusing him. Even though he is an enrolled member of our tribe, he wasn’t in an Indian foster home like the ICWA requires. But at the time, that was the least of our worries. We just wanted to find out what we could do to help my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.
Things didn’t look too good. Even though the abuse charges were alleged, they hadn’t been proven. But besides the abuse charges, my brother and his wife were pretty heavily involved in drugs and didn’t seem to be doing anything to try to get their son back. My husband and I didn’t think Zak would ever be returned to them because they really weren’t working on their treatment plan.
We were licensed foster parents on the reservation where we live. We figured we’d have a good chance to get our nephew placed with us when the permanent plan was decided. My brother and sister-in-law were OK about us having Zak placed with us. But the child welfare agency in their state thought we wouldn’t protect him from his parents, so they left him in the non-Indian foster home.
At first the child welfare agency didn’t notify our tribe about our family situation. My brother didn’t tell the worker that he was a tribal member, and she didn’t think Zak looked “Indian.” If the agency worker had asked Zak’s parents more about their Indian heritage, she would have found out that Zak was enrolled with our tribe. By the time the agency worker found out about Zak’s Indian heritage and notified our tribe, Zak had already been in foster care for three months. The tribe intervened and told the child welfare agency that they wanted to transfer Zak’s case to tribal court in our state. But the state court found “good cause” not to transfer and noted that Zak had bonded with the foster family.
So Zak stayed in the non-Indian foster home where he’d been placed. We were able to visit him only about once every six to eight weeks because it was hard for us to travel out of state to see him. But we didn’t want him to forget us so we kept visiting as often as we could. In the meanwhile, our tribe kept trying to get jurisdiction.
After a year, Zak’s mom and dad had not finished their treatment plan and had done nothing to reunify with Zak. The agency worker decided that the permanent plan for Zak would be adoption. Even though she wanted the foster family to adopt him, we also wanted to adopt Zak since he’s our nephew. Our tribal lawyer was able to show in court that the purpose of ICWA is to keep Indian families together. He proved that the social service agency didn’t follow the ICWA from the beginning. He also showed that we had kept close connections with Zak with our visits, and we were bonded to him, too. It took a long time, but finally the court ruled in favor of the ICWA and transferred jurisdiction to our tribal court, and we adopted Zak.
We know it was hard for his foster family to give him up, so we try to make sure he has visits with them sometimes. But now Zak is growing up with his cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who live near us on the reservation. He is learning the traditions and ceremonies of our tribe.
If it hadn’t been for the Indian Child Welfare Act, our family probably would have been separated forever.
References for this and other articles in this issue