Indians fear legal breakup of family

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Rowland Morris Sr., who suffers from a terminal illness, fears that after his death, his grandchildren will face a childhood of physical and emotional abuse on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Mr. Morris’ grandchildren could be separated from their white grandmother, Lisa, who has raised them with her husband for the past eight years.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) allows the government of Mr. Morris’ tribe to take custody of his four grandchildren, ages 9 to 15, and relocate them to the reservation because Mrs. Morris is white and has no biological relationship to the grandchildren.

Both Mr. Morris and his previous wife are part-Indian.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe member and his two teenage daughters with Lisa Morris, Therese and Melissa, are in Washington to attend a meeting held by the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA) to discuss federal American Indian policy.

The Morrises, who live in Ronan, Mont., participated in a press conference Wednesday, sponsored by CERA, that focused on issues affecting Indian policy.

The ICWA was passed in response to many Indian families being “broken up” by “non-tribal private and public agencies.” According to congressional findings, large numbers of Indian children were placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes before the act was created.

The law seeks “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” Therefore, it aims to provide orphaned Indian children with “foster or adoptive homes, which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture” and provide “assistance to Indian tribes in the operation of child and family service programs.”

The Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare argues that the bill is not improving Indian children’s lives. Therese Morris, Mr. Morris’ 16-year-old daughter and alliance member, said the ICWA is based on “false assumptions.”

Miss Morris, who has cousins and other family members living on the Leech Lake Reservation, said she has witnessed cases of abuse and neglect that outweigh the cultural benefits.

Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, defended the law.

Mr. Cross said cases of abuse and mistreatment can be attributed to improper enforcement of the law and lack of resources.

He said the Morris family represents a few disgruntled people’s response to the act.

“For the most part, ICWA has regularly improved treatment of families and children,” he said.

Mr. Morris said the ICWA protects the interests of others over his grandchildren. The law is “supposed to help children, but instead it helps tribal governments,” he added.

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