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Monday, March 29, 2010



Working Together to Strengthen Supports for Indian Children and Families: A National Perspective

Keynote Speech by Shay Bilchik at the NICWA Conference, Anchorage, Alaska on April 24, 2001

I. Truth and Reconciliation

I want to begin with a story that was a favorite of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, also known as Wassaja. He was an Indian activist, a Yavapai who was born in 1875 at Fort MacDowell, Arizona, and a physician, back in the days when doctors made house calls. As he told the story, a certain doctor used to walk once a week or so down a particular street to visit a patient. On his way, he passed by the home where a friend of the patient lived. Each time he passed her door on the way back from his house call, she would be sitting outside, and she would ask how her friend was doing. “She’s improving,” the doctor always reported.

After this had gone on for many weeks, there came a day when he had a different answer: “I’m sorry, she’s dead.” The woman went inside and conveyed this news to her husband. “What did she die of,” he asked? “I don’t know,” said the woman. “I guess she died of improvement.”

When Carlos Montezuma told this story, sometimes in testifying before Congress about the condition of his people, he used it to warn his audience that American Indians and their irreplaceable cultures were in danger of dying from “improvement” if the U.S. government persisted in the policies it was following.

Now the Child Welfare League of America, the organization I represent, has never been a part of the U.S. government. But most of its members, public and private child welfare organizations, represent a profession that has always been dedicated to improvement, in its positive and sometimes negative sense. For that reason, I think that you and all the people you represent deserve an accounting of one phase of our history.

I have not met many of you before today, and we don’t yet have an established relationship. Even so, I want to talk with you on a very personal basis about a matter of great importance to all of us.

The spirit in which I stand before you today, as a representative of CWLA and as an individual, is the spirit of truth and reconciliation. In recent years, many countries have dealt with the aftermath of a period of great injustice by creating national truth commissions. This approach was based in the belief that while the past could not be undone, it could be faced squarely, and in a highly public forum- and that a full accounting of the truth was the best possible basis for moving forward to build the future. When the truth had been told as fully as possible, those who had been offended could have at least the knowledge that denial was at an end, and that the world knew what they had suffered. The perpetrators shared that knowledge. Reparations and reconciliation could proceed, on the foundation of truth.

It is with this attitude that I approach you today, and begin a discussion that I realize will need to continue - and to grow over time.

Some of you are already familiar with CWLA, but for those who are not, I’ll offer a brief history. In 1909, the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children recommended the formation of both a Children’s Bureau within the federal government and a non-governmental body that would unite the various public and private groups working across the U.S. for the sake of children and families. Around the same time, leaders of many child-serving organizations in the Eastern and Midwestern states were realizing for themselves that they would be stronger together than alone. They were particularly interested in developing standards to guide child welfare practice, in hopes that high quality services would become the national norm. CWLA opened its doors in New York City in 1920 with 63 member agencies.

This all happened just about the time that child welfare was beginning to take itself seriously as a profession. Individuals viewing the work from something of a business perspective were stepping up to take control away from the “church ladies” and society wives who had originally established many of our agencies, and a few colleges were beginning to offer professional degrees in social work.

Since 1920, CWLA and the child welfare profession have grown up side by side, and although we like to believe that today’s practice is the state of the art, we know that both still have a lot of growing to do. In no area of practice is this truer than in Indian Child Welfare.

Our profession is other-centered. It’s dedicated to improving conditions of life for people, like children, whose capacity to help themselves is limited by age or other circumstances. By its very nature, this exposes us to a strong temptation to think we know what’s best for other people, so we constantly have to rediscover humility and respect.

Although we strive to provide leadership for our member agencies, as a membership organization we haven’t usually been very far ahead of our members, who haven’t been very far ahead of the mainstream culture. For a long time in the early history of child welfare, many educated middle-class Americans sincerely believed that the world would run smoothly and sweetly if everybody would just make the effort to think and behave like they did. In the name of improvement, Irish and Italian children were scooped up from city tenements that looked crowded and dirty, away from “unfit” single parents and the smells of unfamiliar cooking, taken to the countryside in orphan trains, and parceled out to rural families. Most of them never saw their parents or siblings again.

These were terrible acts, no matter how noble or “professional” the intentions of their perpetrators. Next to the death penalty, the most absolute thing a government can do to an individual is to take a child away. But these were acts against individual immigrant families, and no European national group was singled out for these removals to the point of being imperiled.

One ethnic group, however - American Indians and Alaskan Natives - a people of many cultures and governments, and the original citizens of this land - was singled out for treatment that ranged over the decades from outright massacre to arrogant and paternalistic “improvement.” CWLA played a role in that attempt. We must face this truth.

No matter how well intentioned and how squarely in the mainstream this was at the time, it was wrong; it was hurtful; and it reflected a kind of bias that surfaces feelings of shame, as we look back with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

I am not here today to deny or minimize that role, but to put it on the table and to acknowledge it as truth. And then, in time, and to the extent that each of us is able, to move forward in a new relationship in which your governments are honored and respected, our actions are based upon your needs and values, and we show proper deference to you in everything that concerns Native children and families.

These are the facts. Between 1958 and 1967, CWLA cooperated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under a federal contract, to facilitate an experiment in which 395 Indian children were removed from their tribes and cultures for adoption by non-Indian families. This experiment began primarily in the New England states. CWLA channeled federal funds to its oldest and most established private agencies first, to arrange the adoptions, though public child welfare agencies were also involved toward the end of this period. Exactly 395 adoptions of Indian children were done and studied during this 10-year period, with the numbers peaking in 1967.

ARENA, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, began in early 1968 as the successor to the BIA/CWLA Indian Adoption Project. Counting the period before 1958 and some years after it, CWLA was partly responsible for approximately 650 children being taken from their tribes and placed in non-Indian homes. For some of you, this story is a part of your personal history.

Through this project, BIA and CWLA actively encouraged states to continue and to expand the practice of “rescuing” Native children from their own culture, from their very families. Because of this legitimizing effect, the indirect results of this initiative cannot be measured by the numbers I have cited. Paternalism under the guise of child welfare is still alive in many locations today, as you well know.

Far From the Reservation, David Fanshel’s 1972 CWLA study of these adoptions (which only covered five years in the children’s lives), concluded that while the children were doing well and the adoptive parents were delighted in almost every case, only Indians themselves could ultimately decide whether this adoption program should continue. “It is my belief,” Fanshel wrote, “that only the Indian people have the right to determine whether their children can be placed in white homes.”

Indian people knew from the beginning that this policy was very wrong. In Fanshel’s own words, they saw this “as the ultimate indignity that has been inflicted upon them.”

Fanshel came to this realization, as he concluded his research, because of the vigorous Indian activism that was underway in the early 1970s. Your legislative answer, after another 5 or 6 years of education and advocacy, was the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed into law in 1978. In the words of ICWA, Congress endorsed the unassailable fact that “no resource is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.” As you have clearly articulated, children are the future.

While adoption was not as wholesale as the infamous Indian schools, in terms of lost heritage, it was even more absolute. I deeply regret the fact that CWLA’s active participation gave credibility to such a hurtful, biased, and disgraceful course of action. I also acknowledge that a CWLA representative testified against ICWA at least once, although fortunately, that testimony did not achieve its end.

As we look at these events with today’s perspective, we see them as both catastrophic and unforgivable. Speaking for CWLA, I offer our sincere and deep regret for what preceded us.

The people who make up CWLA today did not commit these wrongs, but we acknowledge that our organization did. They are a matter of record. We acknowledge this inheritance, this legacy of racism and arrogance. And we acknowledge that this legacy makes your work more difficult, every day. As we accept this legacy, we also accept the moral responsibility to move forward in an aggressive, proactive, and positive manner, as we pledge ourselves to see that nothing like what has happened ever happens again. And we can ask- I do ask and hope- for a chance to earn your respect and to work with you as partners, on the basis of truth, on the ground of our common commitment to the well-being of children and young people and the integrity of families and cultures.

We will begin by demonstrating our respect for you and your work, recognizing the authority of your governments, and taking seriously our position of influence with public and private child welfare agencies and the governments supporting them, to fully comply with the spirit and the letter of the Act.

In recent decades our relationship has been characterized by a fluctuating level of effort and many sins of omission. There has been silence from the League on many occasions when we should have spoken out, on ICWA in particular. And we haven’t yet demonstrated sufficient leadership for our members, or the field, in this area.

But more encouraging things have been happening recently, and the trend is definitely looking up. The credit for that goes largely to Terry Cross, of NICWA and the Seneca Nation, and to Faith Smith, founder and president of Native American Educational Services College, who has served on our board since 1992. Faith Smith is an Ojibwe from the Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin. Both of them have been insistent and persistent- in the friendliest possible way. A newer CWLA Board member, Faith Roessel, who is a Navajo from Round Rock, Arizona, has also guided our new course. And a number of our staff members have urged and guided us in this direction, beginning with Burt Annin in the 1980s and including Deputy Director Shirley Marcus Allen, and staff members Linda Spears, Lynda Arnold, John George, Tom Hay, and others. We established an internal Task Force on Indian Child Welfare in early 1999, and some of the recommendations it has developed are already being implemented.

[EXCERPT: Source:]

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