Fawn Sharp: Why Enforcing the Indian Child Welfare Act Matters: My Personal Story

Fawn Sharp: The attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act cannot stand

With the fate of the Indian Child Welfare Act in the hands of a federal appeals courts, tribes and some states have come together to defend the law, which Congress enacted in 1978 to address the high rates of Indian children being taken from their families and their communities.

The Quinault Nation and the state of Washington are part of that coalition. Writing in The Washington Post, Quinault President Fawn Sharp and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) explain why ICWA is still needed, some 40 years later:

Having survived genocide, catastrophic plagues and systematic oppression on a continental scale, tribes have withstood the test of time by painstakingly rebuilding their identities and healing their communities one child, one family at a time. The multigenerational trauma already caused by centuries of family disruption and dismemberment has only compounded the importance to tribal nations of ensuring their little ones are given every opportunity to retain their identity and home among their people.

The Indian Child Welfare Act aimed to aid in this process by setting high standards that caseworkers must meet when they explore whether a child who is either a member of a tribe or eligible for tribal membership ought to be removed from his or her parents. Those rules include a requirement that families receive support that could help them retain custody of their children; a preference for foster or adoptive placements with members of the child’s family, tribe or other Native Americans; and efforts to include not just children’s parents but also tribal officials in these processes.

For Native children, the ICWA has protected their right to know and understand their own culture. For many, it has allowed ongoing connection to extended families and tribal communities, allowing important cultural traditions to be passed down and tribal nations to build brighter futures.

Research shows that there are important long-term benefits to being raised with a distinct cultural identity as a Native person. For youth, this secure sense of cultural identity is linked to higher self-esteem, better education attainment, and lower rates of mental health problems and substance abuse.

But the two officials aren't the only ones wondering why ICWA is under attack. The Austin American-Statesman accuses Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who is trying to strike down the law in court, of "hypocrisy" in an editorial:

Paxton is putting the might of his office behind an effort to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act, arguing the 1978 federal law discriminates against non-Indians who wish to adopt Native American children. The law gives priority on placing such children with relatives, other members of their tribe or members of another tribe.

Paxton’s efforts betray a disappointing ignorance of not-too-distant U.S. history, when up to a third of Indian youth in some states were forcibly removed from their homes and adopted by non-Indian families, alienating these children from their culture and further eroding Native American tribes.

The attorney general’s efforts also reek of hypocrisy. Paxton condemns the law for depriving children “of loving families committed to their well-being.” Yet his office does that very thing by supporting policies that discriminate against same-sex or non-religious couples who wish to adopt.

Read More on the Story
Bob Ferguson and Fawn Sharp: Native children benefit from knowing their heritage. Why attack a system that helps them? (The Washington Post March 20, 2019)

Another Opinion
Editorial: Paxton should stop playing politics with adoptive families (The Austin American-Statesman March 20, 2019)

ICWA Under Attack
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a closely-watched Indian Child Welfare Act case on March 13, 2019. "They are not 'your children,'" one judge said at the hearing in New Orleans, Louisiana. "They are members of the tribe before they are 'your children.'"

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