Utah lawmakers want to protect Native American adoptions

The state is considering enacting the Indian Child Welfare Act into state law to allow Native children to be nurtured here by Native parents.

(Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rupert Steele, leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes, speaks in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 15, 2015. Steele spoke Wednesday, November 16, 2022 to support the codification of a statewide version of the Indian Child Welfare Act in Utah.

Utah foster carer Stephanie Benally recently found homes for several Navajo children with a foster mother who is Apache.

Though not from the same tribe, the children and foster mother share a love of their indigenous cultures, Benally said. And the foster mother helps the children understand and appreciate their Navajo or Diné identity.

Recently, Benally explained, the mother held a first laugh ceremony, or A’wee Chi’deedloh, for the youngest child. Sacred Navajo tradition celebrates a baby’s first laugh.

“She makes sure to make that connection for her kids,” Benally told the Utah legislature Tuesday.

Benally, the Native American specialist in state foster care, spoke about the importance she sees in keeping Native foster children with Native parents — preferably with someone from their tribe or, if that’s not possible, another tribe. But sending these children to white homes should not be an option; this would be detrimental to indigenous children who need to stay in touch with their culture and language.

The discussion took place Tuesday as the US Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which provides safeguards against the removal of Native American children from their tribes. It came after years of tribal children being taken from their homes and placed in institutions or families without ties, where many children reported abuse.

Utah’s Attorney General — along with those of 25 other states — has sided with the tribes in the case, calling for the law to be upheld to protect Native American children. The court has also heard from families who believe there should be no racial preferences in foster care.

If the law is scrapped, Utah lawmakers on Tuesday discussed plans to enact a nearly identical version statewide that would codify the same preference to continue placing Native children with Native foster parents. The Native American Legislative Liaison Committee voted unanimously to pass this legislation for the upcoming session beginning in January.

Culture is “not something you can learn from a book,” Benally said. “It’s everyday life. … Our children thrive when placed in native families.”

Rupert Steele, the leader of the Confederate tribes of Goshutes in west-central Utah, said he remembered growing up that whenever a white man came to his house, he and his siblings would hide. They had heard about other children in their tribe, he said, who had been taken away.

“We were scared,” Steele said. “We were afraid that we would also be taken away from our family circle. This fear has existed for many Indian families in the United States for decades.”

Steele spoke about the “ugly history” in the United States of how native children were treated. They were also removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools far from their parents, where they were forbidden to practice their culture and often forced to work.

“The state of Utah is no exception,” Steele said. (There were at least eight Indigenous boarding schools here, according to a list compiled by The Salt Lake Tribune.)

Taking Indigenous children from their tribes in particular, Steele added, is a form of cultural erasure and he believes it is part of the legacy of assimilation. The Indian Child Welfare Act is an attempt at “corrective action” to prevent further harmful action.

“Protecting our children is now our greatest responsibility,” he told lawmakers.

Rep Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, said he grew up with a Native American brother and it was “difficult circumstances” for him. He said he supports the bill to keep tribal children with their tribes.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called the legislation “critical.” She added, “I think the state of Utah needs to make that leap.”

Steele said Utah hasn’t always been fair or kind to the Native peoples who were first on that land. But this measure, he said, is a positive step forward to ensure “our most valuable resource” is safe.

Benally, a Navajo, shared her own experience of adopting two Navajo children. Now she travels across the state supporting local foster parents and trying to get more of all the sovereign tribes here to take in children who need a home.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/11/16/utah-lawmakers-want-protect/ Utah lawmakers want to protect Native American adoptions

Justin Scacco

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