Inside the Native American foster care crisis tearing families apart

Reporting for this story was supported by the USC Center for Health Journalism's Health Journalism Fellowship.

Elisia Manuel remembers when she and her husband Tecumseh received their first foster child. “We had to go buy the boy some clothes,” she told me. “We had to get him everything, because he came with nothing. The agency even had to lend us a car seat to bring him home.” Elisia, who comes from the Mescalero Apache and Yaqui tribes, and Tecumseh, an Akimel O’odham from the Gila River Indian Community located just south of Phoenix, were thrilled to get a Native child to care for—even if it meant completely outfitting the little boy, purchasing a heavy-duty washer, and finding other supplies.

But state and tribal child welfare agencies say that Native foster families like the Manuels are hard to find. And that shortage can cause havoc when non-Native foster families wishing to adopt a Native child try to circumvent a law designed to keep tribal kids in their communities. Nationwide, American Indian and Alaska Native children are placed into foster care at a rate 2.7 times greater than their proportion in the general population, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). With a disproportionate number of Native kids removed from their homes each year, the need for Native foster homes is huge—and there aren’t enough to meet the need. That shortage leads to non-Native foster parents taking in kids from tribal communities. Sometimes, those foster parents decide they want to adopt the foster child even though the law is supposed to prevent virtually all such non-Native adoptions.

This has led to nasty fights over custody; one highly publicized dispute was over Lexi, a young Choctaw girl whose foster parents sued to prevent her being given to the girl’s paternal family. The case stretched over four years and attracted international media attention until 2016, when the case was resolved in favor of her father’s family. In 2013, a little girl known as Baby Veronica was at the center of yet another maelstrom, this time after her non-Native mother turned her over for adoption leaving her Native father to fight for her return. This time, the outcome was different: The non-Indian adoptive family got to keep the girl.

To understand these disputes, you have to know the painful history behind them. Before the enactment of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the law that governs removal and placements of Native kids, 25 to 35 percent of Native children nationwide were being removed from their families, according to NICWA.

Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services’ Child and Family Division found that prior to ICWA’s enactment, nearly 80 percent of all Native families had lost at least one child to the foster care system, thus posing the real risk of tribal extinction. Minnesota’s Department of Human Services found that the children who were removed were “at great risk for experiencing psychological trauma leading to long-term emotional and psychological problems as adults” due to losing cultural and family connections.

Eighty-five percent of those children removed from their homes were placed outside of their families and communities by state courts, welfare agencies, and private adoption agencies, despite many “fit and willing relatives” who could have taken in those children. In fact, family fostering is the norm in Indian Country, but states did not realize, or recognize, that fact. This can still be an issue, although after 40 years of educating state child welfare workers, it’s starting to change. Over the past decade, the federal government has finally issued compliance guidelines for ICWA for states and other entities. That’s helped to reduce the number of placements outside tribal communities, although more needs to be done, according to author Shanna Knight in the publication ABA Child Law Practice.

But now, with a perceived increase in legal challenges to ICWA, including a challenge by the Goldwater Institute that the US Supreme Court declined to hear last year, the need for tribal foster homes to prevent these agonizing battles grows ever greater.

The Manuels, who now have six kids in their home—three of whom they’ve adopted—are one of just a few foster homes in tribal communities.

The lack of Native foster families across the nation is “a serious issue,” David Simmons, the director of government affairs and advocacy for NICWA, told me. “Recruitment and retention of foster parents isn’t there.”

Simmons regularly advises state child welfare systems, “Don’t assume mainstream methods will work with Native American families—you need a cultural approach, based on relationships.” Care by kin is “very big” in tribal communities, Simmons said.

Then, there’s the matter of trust. “There’s a historic distrust [of state and federal government] in Native communities,” Simmons told me.

Native families also can have trouble meeting strict care home standards. “For example, the child’s room must be a certain size to qualify the home as a foster home,” Simmons said. But ICWA contains a provision that states should treat tribal foster homes according to the tribes’ standards of cultural norms, such as extended families raising children. Also, the law trumps state regulations such as the home structure or how many people reside in the home. Arizona is home to 22 tribal communities, and nearly 28 percent of the state is tribal lands.

Despite this, Kenneth Poocha, the tribal liaison for the Arizona Department of Child Safety, told me that there is a shortage of Native foster homes in Arizona for the 1,500 Native kids in the state’s system—about 10 percent of the state’s current total foster child population. “There are a variety of reasons as to why this may be,” Poocha, a member of the Hopi Tribe, said. For one thing, “Many Native American families that may be willing to be a foster home are simply not aware of the process or even how to begin.”

Poocha and his office are actively recruiting foster families, but it’s not an easy proposition, even though families operating homes licensed by the Arizona Department of Child Safety receive payments up to nearly $29 a day, and more for children requiring more medical and/or behavioral care. Poocha also says that in Arizona, tribally certified foster homes are considered to meet state regulations.

When Native foster families can’t be found, state child welfare staff must place them with non-Native parents, creating a complicated situation for the foster and birth families and the child’s tribe. A non-Native foster mother living in Phoenix I spoke to requested that her name not be used because she’s fearful of harassment from Native activists upset that non-Indians are caring for tribal children. The single working mom has had the boy, now nearly four years old, for a year.

“I was his third home in two months,” she told me. “I wouldn’t have taken him if I had known how many needs he had.” But she added that after some time, she realized that “this is the child I was meant to have.”

The boy had been severely neglected and “completely deprived of attention,” she told me. His separation anxiety is so bad, “I go to the bathroom, and his fingers go under the door.” The boy had no words when he first came to the mom’s home, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing domestic violence, he had severe social and behavioral issues and developmental delays, and his immune system wasn’t well developed. “He had chronic fevers,” the mother told me.

All these issues are symptoms of toxic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences, which if not corrected by putting the child in a better environment can result in cognitive and health deficits that last a lifetime. The Phoenix foster mom thinks that the boy’s birth mother “probably suffered from adverse childhood experiences herself.”

The mom said that the child’s tribe, which is peripherally involved, would like for him and his three siblings to be reunited. However, “there are no placements that can handle all four of them,” the foster mom told me. “I think it would be cool to do cultural things with him, but we’ve been in survival mode all this time.” The foster mom supports eventually sending the boy home, once the birth mom “gets her act together,” she said.

There’s widespread agreement that the best solution would be to place Native children in Native homes, but there are material obstacles in the way that the ICWA can’t solve.

One of those obstacles is supplies. Recalling their early struggles with obtaining needed supplies for their first foster child, Elisia and Tecumseh Manuel decided that other Native foster parents needed support with basic needs like diapers and clothing. The couple established a nonprofit called Three Precious Miracles in the hopes of making it easier for Native families to foster children.

Today the organization provides clothing, cribs, car seats, and a support group for parents. Elisia says she’s received calls for help from as far away as South Dakota, although most of her work is done in Arizona.

Elisia Manuel showed me the warehouse in Sacaton, Arizona, where Three Precious Miracles is located. The room is packed to the ceiling with diapers, coats, clothing, and toys. “These shoes are provided by Vans,” Elisia told me, showing off a shelving unit full of children’s shoes. “But I do need a couple more cribs.”

As we spoke, a Native American lady walked in, searching for supplies for a newborn baby who she was told would be coming to her home. “I need everything,” the woman, who drove more than 20 miles from the other end of the Gila River Reservation, said. Elisia handed her a form to fill out, so her staff could start putting together supplies for Arizona’s newest foster child.

That done, Elisia locked up and headed back to her real work—caring for her six adopted and foster kids. “These are the center of our lives,” she said, pointing to a picture of the three adopted children. “These are my heart.”

[This story was originally published by Vice.]