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Child advocate Martha Suta Ramirez focuses on tribal children

Child advocate Martha Suta Ramirez. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

It has been said so often it could be a mantra: children are the future of the tribe.

With that in mind, the Health and Human Services’ Advocacy and Guardianship Department operates with the health and well-being of children as its core principle. Child advocate Martha Suta Ramirez approaches her work with tenacity, dedication and passion for every child.

“Our goal is what is best for the child,” said Suta Ramirez, who has been with the A&G department for six years and works in the Immokalee office. “We help families with training to hopefully have a positive outcome for the child.”

The process begins when someone alerts the A&G department of abuse or neglect. They are given information on how to make a report, anonymous or otherwise, to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). An alert could come from anyone who is suspicious or knows of abuse or neglect. The A&G department facilitates all DCF investigations and works closely with it after a report is completed and an investigator is assigned.

“We are mandated reporters, so if we know something we report it to DCF,” Suta Ramirez said. “We are present at every contact DCF has with a child and work side by side with them.”

The A&G department makes sure DCF knows the child is subject to Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) protections, which extend to descendants as well.

Suta Ramirez works with the families to make sure they are aware of all the services offered by the A&G department, which include counselling, assessment, mental health services through CBH, evaluations and parenting classes.

“My role as an advocate is to make sure families are aware of all our services, assist them in the process and encourage tribal members to use services,” Suta Ramirez said. “I let them know we are there to help them, not hurt them. DCF are the investigators; we are there to support tribal members through the process and provide the help they need.”

A DCF investigation isn’t necessary for a parent to take the parenting classes. The classes are available all the time and offered to all families. Classes are based on Native American and modern parenting practices and include culture, traditions and nurturing. The classes aim to link the two parenting methods.

“The classes are about positive Indian parenting with an ICWA curriculum,” Suta Ramirez said. “The classes cover traditional parenting, lessons from the storytellers, harmony in child rearing, traditional behavior management and cradle boards, mother nature and how to praise a child. It gives choices in parenting and focuses what Indian parents face today with their children, who are living in two worlds. It’s interesting and the parents really like it.”

Investigation process

A DCF investigation follows a specific timeline. If a case hasn’t been resolved after 60 days, more may need to be done. DCF will determine if the family needs more intervention, such as case management without going to the state’s dependency court. Or, it can take the family to court to remove the child from the home. The goal of dependency court is to achieve timely permanency for the child.

“As an advocate, I need to make sure the child is raised in the best place for the child,” Suta Ramirez said. “We encourage tribal placement with family members in the tribe.”

Every child advocate in the A&G department has experience in case management and knows the law and court procedures. Additionally, they help families navigate the process. Unification with parents is the ultimate goal, unless it isn’t in the best interest of the child.

If the case goes to court, it can take about a year to be resolved. Suta Ramirez provides reports to the court and ensures the child remains up to date with medical and mental health services. As the case proceeds through the court, she meets with the child every week, then biweekly and finally every 21 days.

The court determines whether a child goes into foster care. The A&G department first looks for family members to foster a child. Background checks are done on all prospective foster families. Home studies are done to ensure the foster home is appropriate for the child.

“It’s important to have the child with a family member, but they need to qualify for that role,” Suta Ramirez said. “If there isn’t a family member, we try to keep the child in the same clan. It’s important to place the child with someone who is willing to work with the parent. Parents have a right to see their child in foster care and we encourage communication. Our foster parents are amazing.”

The A&G department tries to help parents get their child back, but unfortunately it isn’t always successful.

“Reunification can only happen when a case is open,” Suta Ramirez said. “After it is closed, the parent will need to reopen the case with the court. We will assist parents if they want to get custody back from a foster family.”

Whether a child remains in foster care for the long term or goes back to their natural family, the A&G department follows up at regular intervals until the child is 18 years old. Advocates follow up at three, six, nine and 12 months and then once a year until the child is 18.

As essential workers, advocates never stopped working during the pandemic and met with children virtually or by telephone. Suta Ramirez said there has been an increase of incidents during the pandemic.

“Sometimes we have a flat ocean with no waves, but sometimes we have back to back waves,” she said. “It’s demanding work and I’m sure everyone in my position is dedicated to it and has a passion for the children and the families. I always say you have to invest your time with the families; the more they see you, the more they get to know you and trust you. When they trust you, it’s easier to do your job and help them.”

The A&G department creates opportunities for families to connect, reconnect, strengthen relationships and provides them skills to become good parents.

“I love seeing families getting together again, seeing children able to grow and be happy,” Ramirez said. “That’s the reward.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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