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Kristi Eaton, Associated Press, Published June 06 2013

Dorgan moderates discussion on Indian Child Welfare Act

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The future of the Indian Child Welfare Act depends on the federal government's ability to work with state governments and ensuring that tribal courts have enough resources, the chief general counsel for the Department of Interior said Thursday.

Department of Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins spoke at a panel discussion in Washington D.C. examining the federal law created to ensure that Native American children removed from homes be placed with relatives or put in foster care with other Native American families, except in unusual circumstances. The discussion, moderated by former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, was streamed online.

Tompkins said state court judges need outreach and training on the law. “Here it's unique. It's a federal law that applies to their proceedings,” she said.

She also said there needs to be a guarantee that when a child gets into the foster care and adoption system, a proper assessment is done to determine whether the child is Native American.

Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 because of the once high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by public and private agencies.

Tompkins, who was born on the Navajo Nation and is an enrolled tribal member, said she was born before ICWA was passed into law.

“During that time in the late 60s, there was a practice and policy of having Indian children placed off-reservation in non-Indian homes,” she said. “I was basically sent off reservation as a baby.”

Her non-Indian parents instilled an appreciation for her Native heritage and tried hard to teach her about her background, Tompkins said, but she felt disconnected living in New Jersey among predominantly white people. She was 15 before she met another Native American person, she said.

“You feel very, very alone,” she added.

After college she went back to the Navajo Nation and felt unwelcome, further adding to the feeling of alienation.

That sentiment was echoed by Seanna Pieper-Jordan, a Native Hawaiian and Blackfeet Nation tribal member who grew up in the foster care system.

When she returned to the reservation as an adult, the question of being “Indian enough” often came up since she didn't grow up there and didn't know the traditions and stories.

“When you're disconnected from it, how do you go back and learn it?” she said, adding that the trauma of feeling alone will affect her the rest of her life.

ICWA has been a hot-button issue across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide soon whether the law allows an unwed Native American father to take custody of his daughter, who was adopted by a non-Indian couple. In South Dakota, two tribal governments have filed a federal lawsuit against the state, accusing the South Dakota Department of Social Services, a judge and a local state's attorney of violating the law by holding improper hearings after children are removed from homes.


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