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First Nations peoples continue to decry the ongoing stealing of their children for adoption

Many people assume that the intentional stripping of parental rights for Indigenous peoples ended with the closure of the American and Canadian “Indian Residential Schools” or with the Indian Child Welfare Act (or ICWA, here in the States back in 1978,)   or even by the signing of Public Law 110-351, (link opens a pdf) which offered the potential of federal support for tribal foster care programs and kinship care across the country, tragically, nothing could be further from the truth.

First Nations children are still being removed from their families and tribal contexts and put up for adoption, and are still represented in disproportionate rates in both American and Canadian foster systems and pools of children made available to adoption.

Over the past 7 years, organizations in Iowa and Nebraska have held an annual event a, “Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children” to draw attention to this ongoing injustice.

This 2008 joint press release (link opens a PDF), for example, lays out the heart of the matter, and speaks a truth heard over and over from any number of parents, tribes, and organizations around the world who have lost their children to adoption. (Emphasis added.)

“The mantra for this march for the last six years has been: ‘when our children grow old, they must know that we fought for them,’” said Frank LaMere, a co-organizer of the rally and Director of the Four Directions Community Center in Sioux City. “As a community, it is important that we come together to seek change for our families and that we continue to make our voices heard, year after year, until that change is fully realized.”


Sioux City Journal photo by Tim Hynds

Pictures from the 2009 march can be found here.

This past week Indian Country Today published another article about the ongoing battle in Iowa, “Fighting for the children: Iowa Native leaders protest child welfare practices.”

Native American children swept up in the Iowa child welfare system face perils ranging from loss of culture to death, according to Vicky Apala-Cuevas, Oglala Lakota, a member of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs.

The commission, a division of the state’s department of human rights, recently met with the state’s attorney general about several issues, including the disproportionately high rate at which Indian children are taken from their parents and doled out to non-Native foster and adoptive families.

The problem occurs throughout Iowa, but the disparities are worst in the county that includes Sioux City, according to another meeting attendee, Frank LaMere, Winnebago, director of the Four Directions Community Center, a local advocacy group.

“In Woodbury County, these policies have ravaged the Native community. Indian families have been torn apart, thanks to collusion among attorneys, adoption agencies, and others. Their actions are sinister at best, criminal at worst.”

Ultimately, no matter what laws sit on the books, the ongoing removal of children remains a constant.

Apala-Cuevas was less sanguine. “The attorney general said he was on our side but that there was not a great deal he could do at this time. Apparently the Iowa and federal Indian Child Welfare Act laws have no teeth. I was very disappointed. There are penalties for illegal parking, but nothing when it comes to separating Indian children from their families. “Our children are not up for grabs.”

The efforts to circumvent and outright undermine the laws appears intentional, calculated, and systematic, involving adoption agencies, facilitators, attorneys and Judges, not in the least bit dissimilar to how agencies ship pregnant women to “adoption friendly” states like Utah to give birth.

Several Indian youngsters have died in foster care in recent years, with little notice in the media or among the public at large, said LaMere. In contrast, he said, the state “came unglued” in an equally tragic situation, when a white toddler was killed in a manner that social services agencies should have been able to prevent.

A pattern that an Iowa newspaper, the Quad-City Times, uncovered in a multi-article investigative report – with adoption attorneys shuttling pregnant women and then their newborns among several states to cover unethical and illegal practices – occurs within the state of Iowa as well, said LaMere.

“It appears that Native kids are moved to rural counties, where the federal and state ICWA laws are not understood or perhaps not known. Judges in those places can be persuaded to hand over our children to adoptive or foster parents. That’s not all, though. Unscrupulous attorneys and officials find even more ways to do an end-run around Iowa’s department of human services, which is on our side. We need an investigation of these practices.”

Indian children fall prey to the system for various reasons, according to Apala-Cuevas. For one, non-Native people involved in their cases may not understand the extended family and larger tribal community to which an Indian child belongs, or may choose to ignore these relationships.

Money plays a part as well. Tens of thousands of dollars in fees may be at stake for attorneys and other facilitators when an adoption occurs, according to the Quad-City Times report. Native children appear to be especially prized by prospective parents, increasing the likelihood they’ll be snapped up by a corrupt adoption agency or attorney, said Apala-Cuevas.

Organizing within the communities has been ongoing.

Four Directions Community Center has held gatherings for survivors, including hours of testimony from children who had been reunited with their birth families, said Apala-Cuevas. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

On Aug. 16 and 17, the organization will hold public hearings on the issue. “We’ll talk about ICWA and the way it’s ignored in Iowa, we’ll discuss the possibility of strengthening our state law legislatively, and much more,” LaMere said. “Attorneys general in other states also need to know this is a problem. We have to protect our children, here and across the country.”

On Nov. 24, the center will hold its eighth memorial march to bring attention to the issue.

For my part, I hope to see more in the adoptee, Parents, and Bastard communities educating themselves, spending some time listening, in order to gain at least some understanding of both the history and the ongoing work that must be done to put an end to these crimes. It is long past time we add our voices to those demanding an end to such abuses.

Perhaps more importantly still, would-be-adopters need to stop coveting, fetishizing, and buying Indigenous children, (same could be said for any targeted population of kids, for that matter.)  Market demand remains the underlying driving engine.

So to list a few resources, The First Nations Orphan Association could be one of many starting points, the blog AMERICAN INDIAN ADOPTEES – Lost Children, Lost Ones, Lost Birds is another, as is Trace A. DeMeyer’s important book “One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects

I’ve blogged several pieces on these topics (barely scratching the surface) as well, please see:

Adoption as a tool of cultural genocide, the “child grabs” Canadian First Nations peoples have endured, my main history and theory post on the subject


“A life filled with scars,” the lasting legacy of the Indian Adoption Program about a previous article in Indian Country Today that focused on the life story of Susan Harness, an American Indian/First Nations adoptee placed into a white family by way of the Indian Adoption Program (or IAP) and the difficulties she has had to face as a result of such.

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