Upper Peninsula tribal leaders are supporting potential legislation that would ensure equal treatment for Native American children and their guardians in the state’s foster care and adoption system. The proposed bills aim to address longstanding issues of cultural insensitivity and discrimination that have plagued the child welfare system for decades.
The legislation, presented by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs), seeks to prioritize the placement of Native American children with Native American families whenever possible. This is in line with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was passed in 1978 to protect the rights of Native American children and families involved in the child welfare system. Under ICWA, states are required to give preference to Native American families when placing Native American children in foster care or adoptive homes.
Despite the protections afforded by ICWA, Native American children are still disproportionately represented in the foster care and adoption system, and are often placed with non-Native families who may not understand or respect their cultural heritage. This can have devastating consequences for the children, who may struggle with issues of identity, belonging, and self-esteem as a result.
“We know of at least 10 Sault Tribe families and many other Native families from around the state who have been impacted by the current laws on Guardianship Assistance Program benefits because their cases involve a tribal rather than a state court,” Austin Lowes, chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said in a statement. “When this happens, children have to remain in unfamiliar foster homes rather than in the home of a close relative, and those foster families may not uphold tribal cultures or customs.”
The bills seek to address these issues by requiring child welfare agencies to make “active efforts” to identify and engage with Native American families and communities when placing Native American children in foster care or adoptive homes. It also requires agencies to provide culturally appropriate services and supports to Native American children and their families, and to involve them in all aspects of the decision- making process.
Support from a wide range of stakeholders, including Native American tribes, child welfare advocates, and state lawmakers from both parties have made SB 137 and SB 138 a hot topic in Lansing. Supporters argue that the legislation is long overdue, and that it represents an important step towards ensuring that Native American children and families are treated with the respect, dignity, and cultural sensitivity they deserve.
“Over the last several decades at Bay Mills, we have had multiple children who have not been able to participate in the Guardianship Assistance Program but desire guardianships to preserve the established familial relationship with their parents,” Bay Mills Indian Community President Whitney Gravelle said in a statement. “By enacting this (legislation), both the State of Michigan and Tribal Nations will strengthen services provided in guardianships so that we can better serve our children and our families across the Great Lakes.”
Opponents of the legislation argue that it could make it more difficult to find homes for Native American children, and could lead to delays and bureaucracy in the foster care and adoption system. However, supporters point out that the act is consistent with federal law, and that it has been shown to be effective in other states that have implemented similar measures.