Advocate Frank LaMere Talks About Battles Shaping Indian Child Welfare

A Q&A with Frank LaMere, member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of the Four Directions Community Center.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has been in the news lately. A National Public Radio (NPR) series exposed horrific child-welfare injustices in South Dakota, while two CNN stories—one on the return of an infant boy to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and another on the return of a baby girl to her Cherokee father—criticized the law, and then-CNN anchor Campbell Brown added some scathing commentary. We went to Frank LaMere, member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of the Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa, for a reading on how perceptions of ICWA are changing and what still needs to happen to ensure state social-services departments and courts nationwide understand and fulfill its requirements. LaMere is a longtime advocate for Indian child welfare who works on a daily basis with Native families.

Has recent coverage of ICWA adversely affected the attitude toward Indian child welfare?

LaMere: The exposure brought attention to the plight of our children, and I am glad of that. As a result of the NPR coverage, members of Congress were inspired to ask for an investigation of South Dakota. I wrote to the legislators involved and told them, “Don’t stop there.” South Dakota has problems, but so does the rest of the country. They should investigate every jurisdiction in every state. Here in Iowa, the social services department of Woodbury County [surrounding Sioux City] has made progress, but it’s just one of our 99 counties. Many in Iowa would still do an end run around ICWA.

What did you think of CNN’s take on ICWA?

CNN and Campbell Brown need a reality check! Brown, as a mother, said she could not imagine the hurt a white family felt when their Indian child was returned to his people. Why could she not also imagine the hurt thousands of Native families feel right now, knowing their children will cry themselves to sleep tonight because someone did an end run of ICWA and stole their children under the “color of law”? Over the generations, hundreds of thousands of Indian families have endured this pain. That’s the grim reality. We must engage and educate ICWA detractors, and we must remind them that the Indian Child Welfare Act is the law of the land—whether they like it or not. And we must applaud the tribes and parents in these recent cases for persevering and those in the courts for reuniting them with the children.

Why do even states that seem to comply with ICWA—or at least seem to try—still have relatively high numbers of Native children in foster care?

We in Iowa are trying to better understand those numbers. Native families were not identified as such in the past, and perhaps now that we’ve drawn attention to them and are identifying them as such, the numbers are rising for that reason. Additional data I want is tracking of individual social workers’ records of pulling our families apart—or keeping them together. Once we have these numbers, we need to ask what their agencies are going to do about it. This needs to happen everywhere, and it needs to happen now.

How does a Native parent fare in child-custody matters when facing a non-Native parent?

Generally, not well. Right now, I’m dealing with the worst case I’ve ever seen and the best example of how the system can fail our families. Two severely disabled Native children were taken from their white father, a founded—that is, proven­—child-abuser. After a crisis, during which one child ended up in the hospital, the court gave the youngsters temporarily to their Native mother. Now the state of Iowa has decided to reunite the children with the father, and the mother fears for her children’s lives. This is about old attitudes that make it tough for our Native families to get justice and to convince courts that ICWA, a federal statute, must be heeded.

Can you give some examples of what Native parents face?

I sit in on many meetings to determine the fate of Native families—along with the judges, lawyers, social workers and others involved—and I observe that they do not apply objective standards. If one standard were applied to all, Native children would go home more often than not. Time after time in these meetings, the Native parent has solved the issue—typically alcohol or drugs—that caused the children to be taken away. The parent proudly announces, “I’ve been sober for 22 months,” or what have you. We all congratulate them on their new wellness, then when that conversation dies down, a social worker inevitably says, “Well, yes, but… ” and raises a new issue. He or she may bring up a long-resolved problem from 20 years before, or something new. At a recent meeting, a social worker announced she’d found dirty dishes in the sink during her last visit to the mother’s home, so the mother shouldn’t get her kids back. I became unglued. I stressed that the mother didn’t lose her children over dirty dishes, and they couldn’t be kept from her for this reason. I deal with this kind of thing every week.

Do states have a financial incentive to ignore ICWA?

It’s a conspiracy of silence. Everyone knows our children feed the child-welfare system. They have for a long time and will continue to do so, because the funding is set up that way [with more children generating greater funding]. But those who work for the system won’t speak up. Beyond that, many social workers and courts nationwide feel they know better than we do about what’s good for our children. It remains for Native people to speak up. We must keep blowing the whistle on the child-welfare system, to local, state and national lawmakers. Only then will we have a chance to keep our families intact.

Is this what Four Directions does?

We at Four Directions Community Center routinely make people in the child-welfare system uncomfortable. Nothing changes until someone feels uncomfortable. That includes us. It is hard to confront those who control the systems that control our lives, but we must. Our children and their futures are in jeopardy. We have a long way to go, but we will prevail.

Click here to read our Q&A with Diane Garreau, ICWA director for South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.