January 01, 2017

Unlocking the Benefits of Tribal Membership: Sasha's Story

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.

Sasha, a young mother with two toddlers, stood before the court alleged to have neglected her children. Child protective services claimed she frequently abused alcohol and her young children were not being fed properly, had missed medical appointments, and lacked basic supervision. The state claimed Sasha allowed inappropriate, unsafe people in the home and the family was cycling through home evictions and homelessness. Sasha knew she had problems and she had burned her bridges with most of her extended family. She felt alone and terrified, and worried for her children. 

Uncovering Tribal Ties

The judge asked Sasha, as he did in every child welfare case, “Do you have any reason to think you or your children have any American Indian heritage?” The caseworker had asked her if she “was a member of a tribe” and she had said “no.” The way the judge asked sounded different though and she had a different answer. Sasha told the judge she had been adopted as an infant and she knew nothing about her birth family. However, comments by her adoptive family over the years made her wonder if she could have Native American birth relatives. Then the judge said something surprising—“Let’s get your adoption file and see what is says!”1

The court obtained Sasha’s 25-year-old adoption file from a nearby county. Sure enough, Sasha’s birth mother was listed as a local tribe member. The tribal representatives were contacted. Not only did they advise the court that Sasha was a member of the tribe based on her birth mother’s membership—the adoption did not affect that—but that Sasha’s children were also tribal members.2 The case was an Indian Child Welfare Act matter! 

Tribal Membership Creates Support Network

The tribal nation informed the court and the parties that many extended relatives of Sasha’s birth family lived nearby and the tribe had services to offer Sasha and the children. The opening of that adoption file also opened options to Sasha and her children. Now there were new relative placement options, a larger network of supportive family members, tribal caseworkers willing to help and coordinate with the state caseworker to locate appropriate service providers for Sasha’s issues—more hands, more help. Sasha felt like she had true allies to support her efforts to better her situation. The family’s prognosis had improved. 

Margaret Burt, JD, private child welfare attorney, upstate NY.

1. ICWA requires sealed adoption files be opened to share information with adult adoptees about possible tribal connections.

2. Not all tribes determine membership the same way.