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January 01, 2017

Reconnecting with Indian Heritage: Restoring Hope

Margaret Burt

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Dionne had three school-age children. She knew she was a member of a tribe but had never lived on tribal land or had much contact with the tribe. Her parents had moved the family away to a large city over 300 miles from the reservation when Dionne was a baby and had not remained involved with the tribe. 

A Family in Need

Now 32, Dionne felt like things had been going wrong since the birth of her third child. The father of her two older children had abandoned the family. The father of her youngest child beat her in front of the children and frequently hit the children. She could not keep a job and found it impossible to feed and dress the children on welfare in the city. The children often missed school. Dionne lost her temper with them often and seemed unable to stop hitting them. The oldest child told his teacher how bad things were at home when the teacher noticed the bruises on his arms and legs. 

Children’s Removal

Dionne’s children were then placed in foster care. To visit them, Dionne had to take two busses and visit in a messy “visitation room” at the state agency. The children cried through the visits. In time the children were moved to a different school because no foster home was available to take them in their home school district. The state moved the youngest child to yet another foster home when the foster mother said she couldn’t handle all three. 

Dionne was more depressed and angrier than ever. She knew things were bad at home—but foster care seemed worse for the children. She wondered how long it would take to get them back. Her lawyer told her the case would be handled differently because she was Native American and the children were members of the tribe. Dionne did not think this would help as her family had not been involved with the tribe for so long. 

Tribal Involvement

When the tribe was contacted by her lawyer, Dionne was surprised that they sent a woman caseworker from the reservation to the court appearances. The tribal caseworker offered to talk to Dionne and they met together with her lawyer. The tribe wondered if Dionne would consider moving to the reservation. They had transitional housing available on the reservation and there were part-time jobs that might lead to something more. There were services—parenting classes, counseling services—that had no waiting lists and incorporated tribal culture and practices. The tribe had its own foster homes and they would look at some of her extended relatives as placement options. The children would be together and she could see them often and perhaps in a relative’s home. There was a good, smaller school for the children. 

Hope Restored

Dionne decided this move may be what the family needed. The parties agreed that the legal case would be transferred to the tribal court so Dionne would not have to travel back to the city. Dionne felt she had more help and concrete assistance and support from the caseworkers on the reservation—and the ability to connect with a larger family and community network. The children’s situation would be better and Dionne felt optimistic for the first time that she would have a real chance to fix her problems and reunite with her children sooner.