By LaKeshia Myers
Two of the most influential people in my life (with the exception of my parents) have been my aunts, Kaye and Thelma. They have been present for every major event in my life; they have served as continuous mentors, advocates, sounding boards, and occasional disciplinarians. Growing up, I knew if anything were to ever happen to my parents, I would be okay because I could always count on them to take care of me. I truly love and adore my aunts Kaye and Thelma, but neither of these women are my biological kin.
I thought about this last week as I attended a hearing of the Task Force on Adoption in Balsam Lake, WI, in the northwestern part of the state. There, Ms. Hinu Smith, a legislative representative of the Ho-Chunk Nation spoke about the familial ties acknowledged by the tribe and how these relationships are often ignored or misunderstood in the multifaceted landscape of adoption and child welfare.
Representative Smith spoke of tribal children having, “many parents” and the notion that the Ho-Chunk don’t necessarily agree with the belief of termination of parental rights, but rather suspension of a biological parent’s rights when they deal with issues such as mental health or addiction.
From a social science perspective, anthropologists and ethnographers define these relationships as “fictive kin”. Fictive kin are forms of kinship or social ties that are based on neither blood nor marriage, in contrast to biological relation. Dr. Joy DeGruy, noted scholar and social worker has in many of her works discussed the concept of fictive kinship as a cultural necessity within communities of color, especially that of African Americans. It was of particular interest to hear this discussed during last week’s adoption task force public hearing; as it brought my beloved aunts to the forefront of my mind, but it also made me question how the value of our relationship was viewed from a child welfare perspective.
During her testimony, Representative Smith described her disillusion with some social workers who only look at potential foster and adoptive parents from a European standard; in doing so, Smith stated that they dismiss and diminish cultural norms that are in place to provide positive reinforcements for Native children. Having heard stories of other parents of color involved in the child welfare system, I have noticed that they have had similar interactions. What was most enlightening was the fact that tribal governments and their cultural kinship ties are protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law that governs jurisdiction over the removal of Native American children from their families. Enacted in 1978, ICWA gives tribal governments a strong voice concerning child custody proceedings that involve indigenous children, by allocating tribes exclusive jurisdiction over the case when the child resides on, or is domiciled on, a reservation. The jurisdiction is also intact when the child is a ward of the tribe; and concurrent, but presumptive, for non-reservation Native Americans’ foster care placement proceedings. ICWA was enacted because of the disproportionately high rate of forced removal of indigenous children from their traditional homes and essentially from American Indian cultures as a whole. Before enactment, as many as twenty-five to thirty-five percent of all Native American children were being forcibly removed, mostly from intact indigenous families, and placed in non-Native American homes, with a deliberate absence of American Indian cultures.
I find that there are many parallels between the treatment and processing of Native American children and African American children in the child welfare system. I believe the child welfare system as a whole should be more inclusive and introspective in examining the value of cultural relationships in our community. As historically marginalized groups of people, we often create and maintain chosen families because our blood families were forcibly interrupted. I am reminded of author Jim Butcher’s infamous quote, “I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching–they are your family.”