In this season of Supreme Court case decisions, you have probably heard about significant decisions impacting civil rights in the USA. I have heard and read numerous stories and responses to the case overturning DOMA and the case that will likely lead to significant changes in voting laws across the south. But there is one case that has received little coverage (and some of it has been horribly inaccurate). The case's official title is Adoptive Couple V Baby Girl , but many people are referring to it as the "Baby Veronica case." I first heard about the case while listening to a radiolab podcast in May. While this was the first I had heard about this specific case, the issues in it were not new to me. The heart of the case involves a law called the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in 1978. The intention was to end unjust and discriminatory practices by social workers and legal systems that led to the termination of Indian parental rights and adoption by white families.
Before I go on about this case, I think it is important to provide a bit of history here. I teach a required diversity course to master's students, and have learned that many Americans know little to no Native American history. I admit I was a bit shocked at first to learn how little students knew, given the rich history of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. This includes tribes who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, the group whose constitution was used as a framework for the US constitution. That's right, contrary to popular belief, the "founding fathers' did not pull the whole thing out of thin air. But I digress...
The history I want to share is my own family's. This is a story that I was told growing up. See I am part Cherokee. My maternal grandmother grew up on and off a reservation in Idaho. She did not speak much about her experiences, for reasons that will soon become clear. My Grandma grew up during a time when Indian Boarding Schools were in full swing. Most of these boarding schools were modeled after the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Capt. Richard H Pratt whose motto was “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”. The primary purpose of these schools was the forceful assimilation of Native American children. Children were taken from their families and immersed in European American culture. Most were forced to cut their hair, were given European names, were punished severely for speaking their native language or practicing their native religion and forced to abandon their Native American identity. Many children in these schools experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Some studies estimate that the mortality rate of these schools was between 25%- 60%. This is how the war was waged on Indian Nations. And just in case you think this is all in the distant past, the peak enrollment in schools was in the 1970's, with an estimated 60,000 children in such environments in 1973. Eight years before I was born.
My grandmother's mother did not want her children to go to these "schools" so she packed up their stuff and moved them off the reservation as each child hit key ages. She avoided having them registered. She encouraged my grandmother and her siblings to not talk about being Indian. As a result, my grandmother grew up in poverty, without a stable family home, in constant fear, and feeling ashamed of her ethnicity. The terrible irony is that she experienced her own sort of forced assimilation, one based on survival.
But at least she didn't go to the boarding schools, where conditions might have been even worse.
The American Indian Movement and activism by Indian Nations lead to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 which provided tribes with greater legal rights including the right to create their own educational institutions. This law led to the closure of many Indian boarding schools, but did not change the opinions of some who believed that Native children should be assimilated. Child welfare systems in many states used their authority to remove Indian children from their homes, terminate the rights of their parents, and place them in foster care systems or white homes. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, in response to reports that 25-35% of Indian children nationwide (as high as 50-75% in some states) had been removed from their families and placed at a rate of nearly 90% in non-Indian homes.
The act has several provisions which are important in the Baby Veronica case. The act only applies to the members of a tribe who are under 18 and biological children of tribal members who are eligible for membership themselves (each nation has its own rules designating membership). The act specifies preferences for both foster care and adoption of Native children. In all cases, the extended family, then tribal members, then other Indian families are given priority. Parental rights can only be terminated if there is evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the child is being harmed and requires a qualified expert witness. The act also requires that voluntary termination of parental rights is only valid if it is signed in front of a judge who has explained the consequences of the decision.
Baby Veronica was adopted by a white couple, without any of the preferred individuals being given an opportunity to adopt her first. Veronica's father admits that he signed away his parental rights to the child's mother (before she was born), but did not know the mother intended to give her up for adoption. As soon as he learned of the adoption, he filed a lawsuit and was awarded custody on the basis that the ICWA had been violated. The case made its way to the Supreme Court who decided that ICWA did not apply in this case, because the father had never had custody (Veronica was adopted at birth). It has been sent down to the lower courts to sort out.
It is important to note that not all American Indians have the same opinion about Veronica's case, and some feel that ICWA is outdated and no longer needed. But I fear that the decision, and the general lack of knowledge about the issues, is a dangerous sign. I want to believe that even if the act was overturned, custody cases involving Indian children would be decided based on the best interests of the child and not racism, but I don't have that faith in our systems. How could I?
My grandmother passed away two summers ago, so I can't ask her what she thinks of the case. She probably would avoid the subject anyway--she was always reticent about her identity. As a result I have had to sort out my multi-racial identity (my maternal grandfather is Irish and my father is white of English decent) through conversations with my mom and my own investigations.
The ugly legacy of the boarding schools lives on. Hopefully the future will be brighter for Veronica and her family.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.