When Denise Yarmal Altvater talks about the abuse she and others suffered as Indian children in foster care in Maine, the stories are so painful to hear that it is impossible to imagine how those little girls lived through it.
On May 24, Altvater, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine) and of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, participated in a public ceremony at the Penobscot Indian Nation’s Sockalexis Bingo Palace on Indian Island to launch a Truth and Reconciliation process that will help heal her and others like her who endured the same awful separation from their families and communities and the brutality of a government child-welfare system whose negligence was horrifying.
At that ceremony, chiefs of the Wabanaki nations, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Altvater signed a Declaration of Intent to Create a Maine/Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Process that will heal the past and create the best possible child-welfare system for Wabanaki children. A truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) will be convened as part of the process.
(Wabanaki means “the people of the dawn” or “first light.” The Wabanaki nations are the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point and the Penobscot Indian Nation at Indian Island.)
TRCs have been established in various places around the world, most notably in South Africa, where it dealt with the violence and human rights abuses under the apartheid system. TRCs are an alternative to the criminal-justice system—the idea behind them is restorative justice, which considers crime or wrongdoing to be an offense against an individual or community rather than the state and seeks to repair the harm through cooperative processes that include all the parties involved.
Maine’s policy regarding Indians was to assimilate them into the dominant society, a process that has its roots in the federal boarding-school program defined by the slogan, “Kill the Indian to save the man.” In Maine, Native children were removed from their homes and tribes almost 20 times more frequently than other children placed in foster care. During the past century across the country, some children were put up for adoption, others were sent to boarding schools where a number died from neglect and abuse, and still others were placed in foster care. The truth and reconciliation process will encourage Wabanaki people to come forward and share their childhood stories of abuse and neglect. The idea is to work—through acknowledgement of the wrongdoings—toward healing and reconciliation, reparations and institutional reform to ensure that the abuse and neglect never happen again. The TRC may include public testimony from the victims, comprehensive reports by the commission and policy recommendations.
When she was 8 years old, Altvater, who is now 52, and five sisters were removed from their Sipayik home where they were being raised by a single mother and placed in foster care with a non-tribal family in Old Town near Indian Island. Two of her sisters were older than she and three were younger—the oldest was 11 at the time, and the youngest around 3 years old.
The decades-old memories are blurred around the edges, but Altvater remembers the day they were taken. “They showed up with big station wagons and they came in and took all our clothes in big garbage bags and put us in the station wagons and drove away—they were state workers,” Altvater says, adding that no one had told them they were going to be taken away from their home. “I don’t even remember if my mother was there. Nobody said anything the entire ride. Nobody talked to us. When we were little on Pleasant Point we didn’t have any cars. We were surrounded on three sides by water. We didn’t have TV or running water or bathrooms back then. We were very isolated so when they took us it was terrifying. We didn’t even know the road went that far and they just kept driving and driving and driving till they got us to this great big house in Old Town.”
In foster care, she was repeatedly abused, Altvater says. No charges were ever brought against the couple that abused her. “In this [truth and reconciliation] process I’ve always used my maiden name, Yarmal, because I think my two [deceased] sisters need to be remembered, and had we not gone through what we did, they would be alive today,” says Altvater. When Altvater joined the working group she says she was filled with mistrust, anger and fear. “I came as an adult with childhood memories of all the torture and abuse I suffered as a young child, as a little girl.”
While the truth and reconciliation process has already helped her heal, Altvater is still reconstructing events as memories emerge. She doesn’t know how the state was notified to remove her and her sisters from their mother’s home. “My mother is old and I know my mother suffers a lot and I just want my mother to have the rest of her years.… ” Altvater says, without completing the thought. “I don’t want my mother to have to deal with this so I’m not going to ask her. It’s too late to ask my two sisters who probably remembered, because they’re gone, but I did contact the state and ask for my records because I wanted to find out why we were removed. Did my mother call the state and say, ‘I can’t take care of them, come and get them’? Or did the state decide they needed to come and take us out of the home? I’ve made two requests already. The state said they can’t find the documents.”
Another recently recovered memory solved the mystery of why the fall season was always so disturbing, Altvater says. “I just found out it was the fall when we were taken away. Recently, with all this [publicity surrounding the TRC], I remembered that when we got to the house the leaves were falling off the trees. All these years I had no idea why I hated the fall.”
A lot of work has led to this point, she says. More than a decade of efforts preceded the signing of the declaration of intent. For 13 years, Altvater and other Wabanaki women worked with a Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group composed of individuals from Maine’s Tribal Child Welfare programs, state Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child and Family Services and staff from the Muskie School of Public Service, American Friends Service Committee and Wabanaki Mental Health Association. She says that taking control of her childhood story has helped in the healing process. “It has been 13 years since I first told my story. I didn’t even know it needed to be told. Since then I’ve learned to feel, care, love and, most of all, strive to become the person the Creator meant for me to be when I was born. Healing is not going to be easy, but it will transform all of us.”
After two decades of work as a social-justice activist for the Wabanaki people of Maine, Altvater was well prepared to take the lead in moving the truth and reconciliation process forward. Altvater works as the Wabanaki program director with the American Friends Service Committee in Perry, Maine, where she advocates for the rights of all Indigenous Peoples. During her 16 years on the job, she has brought together tribes, state workers and communities to confront injustices and promote healing among Maine’s four Wabanaki tribes by holding regular meetings hosted by the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. She and other Wabanaki adults who went through the Maine foster-care system as children helped train more than 500 Maine Department of Human Services workers since the Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group formed 13 years ago on complying with the 1978 federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed to reduce the inordinately high number of Native children being
sent to live with non-Native families. She has also provided anti-racism and cultural training for Washington County jail guards and the University of Maine System. Altvater is currently a member of the Maine Indian Child-Welfare Coalition and chairs the Wabanaki Criminal Justice Commission, which exposes and addresses issues of racism and abuse in the Maine Criminal Justice System. “Everyone wants to know what the goal of this project is,” she says of the TRC. “For me, it is about healing, education and learning. It is about changing how we do our work so that every child we are responsible to protect is treated with kindness and dignity and given the best we have to offer so they will have a place that is always safe.”
Maine’s rate of placement of Indian children in white homes was 19 times higher than the national average, says Esther Attean, a Passamaquoddy who works with the Muskie School of Public Service, which is facilitating the reconciliation process between Maine’s child-welfare agency and the tribes. After the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, Maine’s child-welfare agency made improvements, but there were still problems in 1999 when the Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group began. The formal process of reconciliation began in 2008 because child-welfare advocates felt “an invisible wall” was impeding their progress, she said.
The invisible wall surrounding the abuse and neglect of Indian children continues to exist although improvements have been made in the system. One of the difficulties is collecting information, according to a study by the National Indian Child Welfare Association. At best, only 61 percent of the data on abuse and/or neglect of American Indian and Alaska Native children, which often leads to foster care, are reported. The primary investigators of abuse or neglect at the tribal level are the tribes themselves (65 percent), followed by the states (42 percent), the counties (21 percent), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (19 percent) and other sources (nine percent), the report says. It is clear, however, that Indian children are disproportionately represented in foster care compared to their representation in the total U.S. populations: American Indian children make up one percent of the U.S. population, but comprise two percent of the foster-care population, according to research by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.
While Indian foster care has improved greatly in Maine over the past several years, the Maine Tribal-State Child Welfare TRC is expected to accelerate its improvement even more. The agreement will be the first of its kind in the country, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said at the signing ceremony. “This is truly a historic event.… This TRC process is unique in that [tribes and the state] have come together with the best interests of Wabanaki children and families at heart. It is a model of collaboration that can be replicated in other areas of tribal-state relations in Maine and has the potential to be a model for other states as well.”
Francis said that many Indian children in foster care were punished for being Native. “They wanted to assimilate them and make Native people [be] like everyone else. The TRC will assure that past atrocities will never happen again and our children have the right to stay Wabanaki and stay connected to that. My hope is this collaboration [from the tribes and state] will serve as a model for how to respect each other and overcome our difference while acknowledging our past.”
Maine’s TRC is driven by three key goals: to create an understanding between the Wabanaki and the state concerning what happened and what is still happening to Wabanaki children in the welfare system; to act on the information revealed during the TRC process to implement changes to improve the system; and to promote healing both among Wabanaki children and their families and the people who administered the abusive system.
LePage, who came to Indian Island for the signing ceremony, spoke about his own childhood, adding a note of empathy to the event. When he was 11 years old, LePage was forced to flee his impoverished home and the abuse he regularly suffered at the hands of his father.
“It’s beyond me to think that, in my case, I chose to leave home,” says LePage. “And to think that somebody would be taken from a home, and think that it could be replaced, is beyond imagination.”
LePage says that the TRC project is “long overdue” and that the signing of the declaration of intent is “an important step to allow the commission to establish its mandate and get to work.” He added that although there have been abuses in the past and “the system has had a negative impact,” the state is now committed “to protecting the rights, dignity and traditions of the tribes” while delivering needed services to all children and families.