Tribes dispute adoption without reservation

THE American Indian community is sending negative smoke signals to United States couples seeking to adopt tribal children. For more than a decade, tribal leaders have expressed concern that many youngsters taken off the reservation and given to childless Caucasian couples were losing their individuality and rich Indian heritage.

The process was slowed in 1978 with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

This congressional statute requires tribal mothers of children with American Indian blood who want to place them for adoption to notify tribal courts first. The courts then attempt to find qualified Indian families to give them homes.

Recent studies show that poverty, broken homes, and other social problems result in more than 25 percent of all Indian children being separated from their families. Of those adopted or in foster care, reportedly as many as 85 percent are placed in non-Indian homes.

Several legal disputes have resulted from interracial placements involving native American youngsters. In some cases, tribal groups try to regain custody after an interracial placement. And adoptive parents go to court in an attempt to keep the child.

Fortunately, some of these controversies are amiably resolved.

A California couple, for example, was recently allowed to continue temporary custody of a nine-month-old Navajo girl whom they had raised from birth after they assured a tribal court that the child could visit relatives on the reservation several times a year.

The Indian mother remains the legal guardian of the infant, pending another tribal hearing this summer.

Meanwhile, a high-level legal tug of war is building over jurisdictional authority in adoption cases involving American Indians and non-Indians.

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case next term that pits a small Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians against a local Caucasian couple who adopted twins born to a tribal member in 1985.

The birth took place in a hospital off the reservation and the natural mother immediately relinquished custody.

Later, Indian authorities tried to revoke the adoption, claiming that it was important to give the children a chance to know their own culture. Mississippi courts held, however, that the tribe has no jurisdiction over the infants, because they had never lived on the reservation.

The Choctaws appealed. And now the high court is being asked to decide whether the 1978 federal law gives tribal authorities - not state courts - exclusive jurisdiction over adoption of Indian children.

On the congressional front, Indian advocates now are mounting a campaign to strengthen, and broaden, ICWA.

Pending legislation before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs would extend tribal jurisdiction over Indian children whose parents may have had no connection with the tribe.

Many Interior Department officials strongly oppose this change. Ross Swimmer, assistant secretary for Indian affairs - and a former chief of the Cherokee Nation - says the proposal is ``racist.'' And Interior Secretary Donald Hodel says the bill wrongly gives Indian parents no right to object to a tribe's attempt to transfer custody or adoption cases from state to tribal courts unless the objection ``is consistent with the best interests of the child as an Indian.''

This policy, government officials insist, would be a violation of parental rights and an unconstitutional intrusion on family privacy.

Lawyers and social workers who work directly with native American groups contend, however, that tribal jurisdiction is vital to the health and welfare of their youngsters. They point out that Indian children placed in non-Indian adoptive homes often suffer significant adjustment problems that sometimes lead to alcohol and drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, and running away.

Violet Lui, staff attorney for the Navajo Nation department of justice, stresses, however, that American Indians are not unalterably opposed to adoption outside the tribe.

``But with Indian children, there is tribal involvement - so it is important to notify the tribe beforehand,'' she says.

Miss Lui explains that Navajos, for example, feel a dual allegiance, and responsibility, both to their tribal society and to the United States as American citizens.

A Thursday column

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