The Privilege to Decide the Life They Are Given: Native American Children in the Foster Care and Adoption System

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House presents a fascinating portal into the Catch-22 of Native American sovereignty, as highlighted by the tangled legal web surrounding the novel’s central event, the rape of Geraldine. But the aspect of the novel I found the most compelling was the issue of Native sovereignty that drove this plot point: the adoption and welfare status of Native American children that Geraldine was directly involved with. In this lies a fraught legacy of splintered identity and social extortion that has foisted the question of sovereignty and the meaning of “welfare” onto innocent victims.

In the postwar era, the long-standing efforts among Native American policy officials to enact forced social assimilation through boarding schools such as Carlisle began to be reevaluated. Now, many began to advocate for foster care and adoption as a solution for Native children. [1] By highlighting what they saw as the destitute and socially backwards state of Indian reservations, social reformers argued it was in these children’s best welfare that they be placed in a healthy, socially responsible environment. [2]

Native American children at school. (Getty Images)

In 1958, the Indian Adoption Project was created to facilitate the adoption of “at-risk” Native American children by white families, subjecting Native families to increased scrutiny regarding their fitness to raise their children. [3] They also launched public awareness campaigns on the social plight of Native children, focusing on the lack of “stable” familial structures existing within tribal societies. [4] As a result, during a period of diminished authority for tribal governments, state social service agencies would assert state sovereignty to declare Native American households unfit and place children in the state foster care system, with tribal governments having little to no recourse. [5]

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Denise Altvater of the Passamaqoddy Tribe, who was placed in foster care as a child. (BBC)

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Native children in foster care and adoption circles suffered significant abuses, while reports indicated from 25-35% of all Native American children were being removed from their homes. [6] By 1978, public attention about these abuses (and concern on the effect of forced child removal on Native American families) led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which declared tribal governments would have a greater say in issues of adoption of foster care, and that Native foster children, except in the rarest of circumstances, would be placed in homes within their tribal environment.

Yet today, Native American adoption and foster care show few signs of change. As Native Americans remain a dramatically disproportionate group in foster care and adoption systems, critics argue ICWA has not been enforced by states, as in some cases over 90% of Native children in the foster system are placed with non-Native, rather than Native families. [7] In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that ICWA did not mandate children be returned to their biological parents. [8] And recent attempts to safeguard ICWA from future decisions that might limit its scope have recently come under fire from a number of conservative organizations that voice the same premise of officials fifty years ago: mainly, Native American communities are disproportionately unhealthy environments, and it is often in children’s best interest to be removed. [9]

Janice Howe fought the state of South Dakota for a year and a half to bring her grandchildren back home after they were placed in foster care. (NPR)

I found myself considering these ideas a great deal as I reflected on our class discussion on the issues of sovereignty, for it speaks to the fundamental question on who gets to declare what is best for a child’s welfare, and who gets to declare the fitness of a family to care for a child. Coming from a family of international adoption, I have grappled or nearly grappled with this idea: that my family participated in and benefited from a system built on Western ideals of what was best for a child’s welfare. No one can deny that there is and has historically been an implicit position of privilege and mainstream authority that guides such decisions. It was from the position of white privilege that social agencies could regard the tribal familial structure of Native American communities as backwards and destabilizing, a threat to healthy social and emotional growth. It was from a place of governmental authority that tribal sovereignty could be fully disregarded to forcibly insert a presence into these families lives and dictate the paths they would follow. And it was from a context of profound social, political, and economic inequality that one way of life could be simply deemed “better” than another. This privileged social calculus forcibly removed thousands of Native children from their homes, often to languish in institutionalized care for years.

And much as the historic legacy and legal precedence of Native American subjugation continues to deprive these groups of sovereignty, the legacy of this child policy continues. In 2011, NPR launched an investigation on the Native foster care system, finding it laden with cultural biases and abuses. [10] Native American foster homes were systematically ignored by the state in favor of predominantly white foster sponsors, state agencies received thousands of dollars from the federal government for each child it takes, while many children experienced emotional and physical abuse, or were removed from their homes under false pretenses.   

For Native Americans, the abuses of the child care system are significant on many levels, mainly separating children from their families and heritage on decisions that continue to reflect the primacy of federal sovereignty over tribal sovereignty. More than this, however, it becomes an issue of identity as children find themselves in that area of “twoness” we discussed in class. Removed from one cultural context and placed in another, they stand on the line between both in a nowhere place, with much of their identity unknown and incomplete. The Round House illustrates why sovereignty can and should be discussed. The situation of children who do not themselves have control over where they may go and with whom, deserves the utmost attention.


[1] Brit Reed, “Indian Child Welfare Act: A Historical and Legal Context,” Last Real Indians, (accessed April 7, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] University of Oregon, “Indian Adoption Project,” The Adoption History Project, (accessed April 8, 2016).  

[4] Reed.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Casey Tolan, “A series of new lawsuits is challenging how Native American kids are adopted,” Adoption Argument, (April 7, 2016).

[7] Peter Harriman, “Ruling on adopted Indian kids threaten tribes, some say,” USA Today, (accessed April 7, 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Josh Israel and Bryan Dewan, “Why a Conservative Legal Organization is Desperately Trying to Kill The Indian Child Welfare Act,”, (accessed April 8, 2016).

[10] Laura Sullivan, “Incentives and Cultural Bias Fuel Foster System,” NPR, (accessed April 8, 2016).

Featured Image: Derrin Yellow Robe, 3, stands in his great-grandparents’ backyard on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Along with his twin sister and two older sisters, he was taken off the reservation by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services in July 2009 and spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family. (NPR)

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