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Iowa Commission to Address Native Child Custody, Fathers' Rights

An Iowa commission was recently set up to look into long-standing complaints by Native Americans about critically unfair treatment within the family law and child welfare systems. A two-day meeting in Sioux City shed light on issues ranging from improper adoptions to the denial of fathers' rights -- and the terrifying helplessness many Native Americans feel that their children can simply be taken away.

While the meeting of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs (ICNAA) was set up through the Iowa Department of Human Rights, representatives of several Midwestern tribes and nations spoke at the meeting. These issues may also be shared by members of other Native American nations, such as Georgia's Cherokee, Creek and Saponi Nations.

Native Parents Face "Hoops of Fire" When Seeking or Keeping Custody of Their Children

"There's a feeling you're never safe," said Judy Yellowbank, commissioner and program manager of the Four Directions Community Center in Sioux City and a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. "Even people who have, for example, legally adopted a grandchild, can't be sure the child won't be taken away."

Yankton/Winnebago tribe member and divorcing father Tony Wood testified before the committee about his terror for his 3½-year-old twins, who have been missing for 34 days.

"I believe they are in danger, and I believe I have fathers' rights, but no agency will help me. In recent months, I have been totally responsible for their needs. Now I don't know where they are or even if they're eating. I have a good job and supervise a staff, and my wife's lawyer is saying I can't see my kids because I'll take them and 'run to the reservation'."

Rosalie Two Bulls of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, a mental-health professional and Ph.D. student, said Native Americans have to go through "hoops of fire" to prove they are competent caregivers. She was told by a child welfare official that she was too old to adopt her grandchildren.

Reginald White of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa testified about experiencing roadblocks and hostility as he tried to gain custody of his son. "He's such a great, outgoing kid, but I'm seeing changes in him," White said.

Misinformation, Lack of Information Thwart Native Americans in Child Custody, Adoption Cases

Under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), there are special requirements in family law cases involving Native American children. The law is intended to ensure that most child welfare decisions made regarding Native children are made by tribal courts and that all government officials use "active efforts" to keep Native families together.

The ICNAA found that misinformation about tribal law, a lack of understanding of Native cultures and uneducated or uncooperative court officials are heavy contributors to the problem. Some lawyers and court officials may not understand the requirements of the ICWA.

The ICNAA plans several steps to resolve the situation moving forward. First, the commission plans to develop cultural competency training, encourage the recruitment of Native foster families and ensure that better home studies are done in child custody and adoption cases. A bill will also be introduced in the spring 2011 legislature that would seek to restore parental rights to Native parents who have wrongfully had them terminated. The bill will also address grandparents' rights.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Iowa Commission Takes on Child-Welfare Morass," Stephanie Woodard, October 12, 2010

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