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Omdahl: Indian child welfare laws should be for children

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opinion Fargo, 58102
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

While elected state and federal officials wring their hands, children on the Spirit Lake Reservation continue to live under a cloud of fear and poverty.

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Our Congressional delegation has been meeting with tribal and federal officials for several years but tragic incidents continue to unfold, most recently the deaths of several children.

Senator Kent Conrad called the reservation a "rudderless ship".

Here are some of the charges and incidents that have evolved during the unraveling of this tragic story:

· Tribal officials, or their relatives, have used intimidation to shut up victims of abuse.

· Nine children allegedly lived with three registered sex offenders.

· Social work employees were threatened with the loss of their jobs.

· Three children have been killed.

Under pressure from Senators Conrad and John Hoeven, the Spirit Lake tribe finally surrendered control of its child protection program to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But this reshuffling of chairs at the top will not end the crisis for Indian children. Every day, some have been placed in homes with alcoholism, sex offenders, hunger and personal danger.

It is time to take another look at the federal foster care and adoption policy that keeps Indian children in homes that threaten their well-being while safe homes are automatically ruled out.

One of my first assignments as lieutenant governor was to help a couple in Cass County that had adopted a Native-American child.

They were told that they could not keep the child because the child's tribe demanded the child be taken from them and placed with some family on the reservation. It turned out to be federal law and the couple was heart-broken.

Because a large number of adoptive and foster children were being placed in non-Indian homes off of the reservations, Indian leaders complained that this trend eventually would end Indian identity. They called it "cultural genocide".

So the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to give tribes the last word on the placement of Indian children. The law was improperly named because it was not a law for children's welfare at all.

The law gave the home tribe of children control of adoption as well as child abuse cases. So even though the Cass County couple loved and cared for their Native-American child, the tribe trumped love with the law.

Some Native-Americans will defend this legislation even though it places the interests of the tribe ahead of the rights of children. As a consequence of this legislation, children are now ending up in unsuitable homes.

In some cases, this placement of occurs because there are not enough Native-American homes available. In other cases, children may be placed with unqualified families for the money that is involved. They are used as "cash cows" for favored friends or relatives.

If there ever were circumstances requiring the professionalism of social workers, it would be in the placement of children. Professionals would place the interests of the children ahead of all other considerations. Unfortunately, the professionalism of social workers has been badly battered in the turmoil at Spirit Lake.

If we pass laws sacrificing children to protect the heritage of tribes, then we should support laws prohibiting interracial marriages because such marriages are changing the bloodlines of Indians and soon we won't be able to tell Native-Americans from Caucasians. In fact, this is already a controversial issue on reservations.

The federal law needs to be changed so that the emphasis of care can be shifted back to the children. Placement ought to be permitted in the best home for the children, regardless of whether that home is Native-American, African-American, Caucasian, Asian or Susu.

 Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota’s 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.

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