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The Des Moines Register from Des Moines, Iowa • Page 4

Des Moines, Iowa
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System seen punishing American Indians 1.. re v. ivv ill -WfX About This Series Des Moines Register staff miter Lee Rood spent six months studying the effects of a five-year-old federal adoption law. In the process, she learned about problems in related areas. Tuesday More children have been removed from Iowa homes because of alleged neglect and abuse, but they are not necessarily safer afterward.

The number of children who are reabused in the state far exceeds the national standard. Reform advocates say they know what might be Iowa's missing link. Wednesday What happens if children are reunited with the parents accused of neglecting them? When given support, child abuse actually declines, an Iowa pilot -project showed. Find out why the relatively inexpensive program some state leaders call the future of child welfare in Iowa is now in jeopardy. Previously The smiling faces of happy adoptive families overshadow the broken families and broken hearts of those the system hurts.

While children once thought to have little chance at adoption now find homes, the trade-offs are many: More youths than ever are taken from their birth parents, and many of those will spend the rest of their childhood in foster care. Earlier articles can be found at Time to eat: Mary White searches through a shopping bag for snack items at the family's Winnebago, home as granddaughter Jaymee looks for her favorite flavor of ramen noodles. ry 1 LOST, from Page 1A Advocates for families complain that Sioux City court officials punish American Indian parents too harshly for alleged neglect and abuse tied to alcohol or drugs. The problem is so well known that some tribal leaders and lawyers in neighboring Nebraska call Sioux City Termination City." "In other states, people would be indicted if they approached the law and the disintegration of families as they have in Woodbury County," said Frank LaMere, a longtime activist for families from nearby South Sioux City, Neb.

David Simmons, a policy director at the National Indian Child Welfare Association in Portland, said Indian children have long been overrepresented in foster care nationally, typically at two or three times the rate of foster children in the general population. "But Woodbury County is more extreme," he said. "I would say the county has a bigger problem than many other counties with significant Indian populations." Officials don't deny that the county's child-welfare system takes Indian children from their homes in disproportionate numbers. Dewey Sloan, the county's chief juvenile prosecutor, calls the crises plaguing generations of families such as White's "a horrible morass," bred of poverty, substance abuse and the "family values of the economically depressed." But Sloan and others in the court system reject claims by some Indian leaders that the child-welfare system is racist or culturally biased. While poverty may keep minority families in oppressive situations, he said, "I'm not going to accept that we're out there trolling for Native American children." Sloan and Brian Michaelson, an associate juvenile judge, also disagree that a proposed law being pitched to lawmakers this year would better protect Indian families.

"When we start a case, all that comes to me is a name," Sloan said. "Put a blanket over all these children, and they're all alike." Concerns about the fairness of the child-welfare system have simmered for years among American Indians in Sioux City, a hub for those from nearby reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. When two babies cousins in White's family died in white foster homes in the mid-1990s, some were outraged. Authorities said Larissa Red Owl, an infant who was exposed to cocaine in the womb, died of pneumonia 13 days after she was taken from her parents in 1994. Hannah Thomaswas 19 months old when she was shaken to death in 1996 by her foster father, Michael Alstott, who was later convicted, Sloan said.

In both instances, Indian families offered to take the children before they died but were refused, family members said. While county officials profess a desire to help families weakened by drugs and poverty, they sometimes make it extraordinarily difficult for them to stay together, White said. "Every inch of the way, it's a struggle," she said. fw -Vf Sir 'lh I ft If -J i.mtnwiiniiHiinx-..i.nliaiiiaa,-lia iJniaaiff' Little pal: Mona White plays with Mary White to give them a ride to a puppy while Jaymee, left, Jennifer and Juha, right, wait for the local basketball court. resources being used, and weak partnerships between the Indian community and local agencies." Simmons, local advocates and some human-service workers believe Iowa's small American Indian population would be better protected if the responsibilities of juvenile courts and tribes were clarified under a state law.

This year, a DHS representative worked with a coalition of concerned professionals and families to draft a statute that many advocates believe would force judges and human-service workers to follow the intent of the federal act. Lawmakers are expected to consider the proposal during this year's legislative session. Sloan and Michaelson, who trains prosecutors, tribe members and social workers on the federal law, believe the measure would be redundant and lead to further delays in finding homes for children. Advocates say the two fail to grasp the importance of helping Indian families stay together or the bias many perceive in the existing system. Dave Farley, who runs a native family resource center in Sioux City, said that while Indian children suffer abuse, he believes their parents suffer harsher consequences than do white parents who abuse their childrea At the same time, the experts who are trained by Michaelson and others to testify in court understand little about Indian culture.

Sloan, who has been vilified at times for his hard-line approach, said the Indian children he sees know little or nothing about the positive aspects of their traditions. "I don't think there's anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse," he said. Iowa taxpayers, meanwhile, show no interest in paying for more services that could better help families of all races, he said. "And if we don't do anything for parents, all we're doing is holding on to the children until the parents slow down and reach a period of stabilization," he said. Then, at some point, the children begin to have serious problems themselves, he said.

Connie Bear King, a facilitator for a community initiative for native families and children, said cutting children off from a distinct culture that values them also has serious consequences later on. In time, she said, many parents stabilize and recover from addictions, she said, "but they have to live with that grief of losing their children for a lifetime and so does the family." A LOOK AHEAD Despite errors, I'm here now for you' Mary White has tried to put miles between her family and the substance abuse, the emptiness and the self-loathing. She and her siblings have been able to overcome many hardships, but their children still struggle. Jewel, one of White's daughters, lost five children because of domestic violence, she said. Free now from an abusive partner, the woman is doing much better but still prays the children will one day come looking for her.

"IVe told my own children, 'I can't turn back the White said. 'But I'm here now for you. I'm sober, and I'm straight, and I'll do whatever I Four of Dawn's children are still separated among foster homes. She doesn't know where. White said she has wisdom now that could help those children, spiritual lessons she learned in a sweat lodge and from a medicine man, not a therapist or pastor.

"You know," she said, "in my boarding school, we went to church twice a day, Mass in the morning and benediction at night. We got down on our knees and prayed for what seemed like weeks. I got baptized, celebrated Holy Communion and all of that, but never once did I feel a thing. I was just scared." Now, at least, White knows how to be a good parent, she said. The three granddaughters, who arrived from foster care with labels that would suggest they were troubled, earn A's and B's in school.

"I say, 'I love I hug them and I kiss them and do everything I can," she said. "I tell them, 'Someday you are going to have children, and this is how you do it: You take care of them and you show them you're never going to MARY CHINDREGISTER PHOTOS specialist in the law for the Ponca tribe in Nebraska. "I don't know why that is. I can't help but think they don't believe Indian people can parent their children effectively." An example: Under federal law, White should have been given preferred status in the placement of her daughter's children, she and others said. Yet, her granddaughters sat in foster care while she jumped through bureaucratic hoops to qualify to adopt them.

White also said she tried to take in more of Dawn's children. The state told her that her old farmhouse on the Winnebago Indian Reservation didn't have enough room to meet fire codes. "It's like they wanted to take the children away and not give them back," she said. Pat Penning, a manager for the state Department of Human Services, said state workers and other area professionals who work with child-welfare cases try to make sure the federal law is followed. Often, however, children involved in neglect or abuse cases live in Sioux City, while their tribes and relatives are in Nebraska and South Dakota.

For myriad reasons, she said, the cases become more complex. Michaelson, who as an associate juvenile judge deals with most termination-of-parental-rights cases in the county, said Indian foster and adoptive homes are nearly impossible to find. He, Sloan and DHS officials said they knew of no American Indian homes currently available to take in foster children. "Caseworkers do everything humanly possible to try to find Native American placements for children," he said. "They just aren't there." In accordance with the federal law, Michaelson said, tribes are notified when authorities suspect affiliation with tribes but many don't become involved until parents are on the verge of losing their parental rights.

Very seldom, he said, are cases transferred to tribal courts, as allowed under the federal law. Michaelson said he couldnt recall a decision he'd made being overturned by appellate courts because he failed to follow the federal act. Advocates say American Indian families and their tribes lack the money to appeal his decisions. Jeff Terrell, a DHS bureau chief, said that with 799 American Indian children in the county, the disproportionate number of children lost to the system would be unmistakable. "With those numbers, folks would have to be aware of how frequently children wind up in foster care," he said.

Many Indian children are reunified with their families, according to a statistical analysis Terrell performed for The Des Moines Register. However, they are more likely to be reabused and re-enter foster care. The state also takes slightly longer to return them to their families. Terrell said national research suggests poverty, not race, might be more responsible for the disproportion of all minority children in the foster-care system. The median income of Indian families in Woodbury County is roughly half that of the general populatioa Simmons said he didnt think poverty was driving more child abuse among American Indians.

"We find that Indian children dont have any higher risk factors than other groups," he said. "There's usually a mix of reasons why Indian children are placed at a higher rate. We find a general lack of cultural sensitivity a lack of Caucasians, and for Indian children, it's seven times greater. Unlike other minorities, American Indians have a unique status in the legal system because they are dual citizens of the United States and of their sovereign nations. Under a long-standing federal statute, Indian children are entitled to special court protection to help preserve tribes and families.

In part, Congress drafted the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent what had happened to families like White's: "An alarmingly high percentage of families broken up by removal, often unwarranted, of their children by public and private agencies." The law was passed in 1978 and requires a higher burden of proof before authorities can take an Indian child. If one is removed, family members and other American Indians are supposed to have preferred status when the child is placed in a foster or adoptive home. Family advocates, tribal specialists and lawyers who work with child-welfare cases say court officials and child-welfare workers in Sioux City sometimes undermine or disregard the federal law. Authorities also find frivolous reasons for denying relatives chances to take in the children after crises erupt, they say. They do so, even though studies suggest American Indian children suffer when thrust abruptly out of their culture and into mainstream foster and adoptive homes.

"It's been a real struggle to get the courts to follow the federal law," said Alpha Goombi, a Woodbury County started beating her, and she began drinking. Every time a social worker took one child, White said, her daughter filled the void by having another. In all, the state took seven children from Dawn. "A lot of women whose kids are taken away just dont care anymore," White said. "My daughter lost everything." Once White had mended her own spirit, she vowed to help her family.

Though Dawn's children were sent to separate foster homes, White eventually was able to take in three: Jennifer, Julya and Jaymee. While in foster care, the girls consistently said they wanted to be with their grandmother, but it took four years to win that battle. "It shouldn't have been so hard," White said. UNIQUE STATUS Legal protections ignored, some say All minority groups are over-represented in the child-welfare system in Iowa and nationwide. Nationally, African-Americans have been the most disproportionate, accounting for 40 percent of the foster-care population.

The proportion of children in foster care in Woodbury County is more than twice as great as the average of all Iowa counties. In Woodbury, the ratio of Hispanic children in foster care is 22 times greater than the figure for Caucasians. For black children, the ratio is 32 times greater than it is for Glaring disproportion in Sloui City woooBUftr COUNTY Minorities are state officials say. the ratio of TROUBLED PAST Abuse, alcohol contribute to losses White knows the number of children taken from her family would seem to indict her as a bad mother. But people can't give what they are never taught, she said.

Like her parents and grandparents, the 51-year-old was raised in an Indian boarding school, where nuns taught children to work hard but seldom showed warmth or affection. A shy girl who was abused early in life, she spent her teens in a shantytown on Sioux City's south side, surrounded by alcoholism and hard times. White had her first drink at age 14 and her first child at 16. "I know now that I spent years looking for love that I never experienced as a child," she said. In all, White gave birth to 10 children.

She finally found sobriety in the late 1980s. So much has happened to her children since then, she loses count of each of their losses. When White talks about Dawn her eldest daughter in Sioux City the grandmother somberly looks toward the three teenage girls she adopted as they sit in her living room in Winnebago, Neb. Dawn used to be a good mother, White said. Then her first husband overrepresented in Woodbury County's foster-care population which is the case elsewhere in the country, American Indians are the most disproportionately represented, based on population.

In Woodbury County, American Indian children placed in foster care is seven times greater than it is for Caucasian children. MEDIAN INCOME CHILD CHILDREN IN CHILDREN WHO HAVE BEEN (from 2000 cesus) POPULATION (2002) FOSTER CARE (2002) PERMANENTLY TAKEN FROM PARENTS TOTAL PERCENT OF TOTAL (PER 1,000 POPULATION) ANNUALLY PERCENT OF TOTAL Caucasian tZZZ3j $39,146 21,274 ESjllJj" 121 68 Eili H'spa EZ3j $34,432 1.661 5.9 54 14 Eio.5 Black Qj $24,500 834 2.g 074 7 jlj American Indian C3j $20,727 799 2.8 151 18 Oj13.2 Other EZTZ3j $36,282 3,822 C3j13.5 Dj 39 3 CJ18 AVERAGETOTAL $38,509" i 28,390 i 30 1 129 Per year, averawd over w. ,.,:,....,1. years: 1998-2002 Source: Iowa Department of Human Services the register.

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