January 10, 2012

When Indians make bad decisions

Here's a case that's gotten a fair amount of publicity:

Indian family protection law central to emotional custody battle

By George Howell and Greg BotelhoFor the first few moments of her life, Veronica was with her birth mother.

For the next two years, she was with her adoptive parents.

And for the last week, the toddler has been with her biological father, over 1,000 miles away from the only home she'd ever known.

It's been a long, complicated journey for young Veronica--one made possible by a federal law meant "to protect the best interests of Indian children" that, in the process, has tugged at the heartstrings of all involved.

The story began in 2009, when Veronica's biological mother and father, Dusten Brown, signed a legal document agreeing to put the girl up for adoption. Brown's attorney, Shannon Jones, says that her client signed the waiver but didn't quite understand it.

Soon after the girl was born, Brown--a U.S. Army soldier--headed off on a 1-year deployment. It was then that the baby moved on as well, to the Charleston, South Carolina, home of Matt and Melanie Capobianco.

It was an open adoption, family friend Jessica Munday said. That meant the girl's birth mother could and did maintain a relationship with the girl.

But Brown, the biological father, wasn't on board. Four months after Veronica's birth, he began legal proceedings seeking custody of her.

"My client has been fighting for custody of his daughter since shortly after her birth," Shannon Jones, Brown's Charleston-based lawyer, said by e-mail. "He loves this child with all his heart."

Brown appeared to win that battle late last year. On New Year's Eve, he arrived in South Carolina, picked up Veronica from her adoptive parents, and headed west to his home in Oklahoma.
This isn't really a pop-culture item, but I thought the following take on Brown's actions was interesting:

A Fight, A Fight, an Indian and a White! Of Childhood Chants and Indian Child Welfare

By Gyasi RossI started to think about how many times, in fancy Skin meetings, when Natives make silly/harmful decisions and then defend it under the auspices of “sovereignty.” And we don’t question it publicly, and Indian people look at us shocked if we do question it (just like we never questioned the little Indian kid fighting at my elementary school) simply because it’s an Indian or an Indian Tribe making the decision. That, evidently, is enough to make it “right” in our eyes. Sovereignty trumps all.

Still, sometimes it’s fair to question whether “Respect our sovereignty” is really code for “Don’t question my stupidity” and whether “Respect our sovereignty” means “I really don’t have a good explanation for this decision, so simply don’t question me because I’m Indian.”

What if the Indian is wrong?

Personally, I think we owe Indian people more than that; I think Indians should be treated like everybody else—like adults. Why shouldn’t we be held to the same standards as everybody else? I mean, I’ve been around Natives my whole life, and the ones that I’m around don’t need any special treatment—they’re incredibly capable all by themselves. They don’t want special treatment. Likewise, it’s insulting to the dad’s intelligence to say that he was so oblivious that he didn’t understand the consequences of his signing literally dozens of pieces of paper to give his child away. I think we owe it to Indian people to hold us to the same standards as everybody else and say, “Yes, Indian dad, you are just as competent as anyone else in this country and therefore you must live with your decisions. Like a big boy.” I hope there’s more to the story than what I’ve read—I pray that there’s a principled reason to get behind and support the Native dad and say “he was right” in this unfortunate controversy, and not that he’s simply doing this because he can. Sovereignty is good for Indians. ICWA is good for Indians. But sometimes we have to think critically about the consequences of even good things.
Comment:  We see some of this in the gaming area. Tribes disenroll members or oppose other tribes' casinos without having to explain themselves. It would be better if they did explain themselves--if the reasons for their actions were transparent.

If we decide that Brown was wrong to change his mind, then what? Do we rewrite the law to prevent situations such as this one? I don't know. But certainly we should think about it as Ross has done.

For more on child welfare, see Why the Indian Child Welfare Act Exists.

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