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Protection of Indian children at core of NICWA event

HOLLYWOOD — The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) hosted a house party at Paradise Live in Hollywood March 23 to discuss its mission and let attendees know how they can become involved in the organization.

The evening began with a traditional dinner and entertainment by rockers Ted Nelson, Lee Tiger and Rod Kohn.

“Our mission is to keep Indian families and children together,” said Nelson, a NICWA board member. “Every time an Indian child is adopted out of the Tribe, you lose one Indian. The more they take away, the more it threatens sovereignty.”

NICWA, a privately funded non-profit membership organization dedicated to the well-being of Indian children and families, works to assure the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is enforced throughout the country. The purpose of ICWA, passed by Congress in 1978, is to protect Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian Tribes and families.

“It’s important for everyone to be part of this to make sure our children are safe, our families strong and our rights are protected,” said featured speaker Terry Cross, NICWA founder and senior advisor.

Cross, a member of the Seneca Nation, has worked in child welfare since 1972. After he graduated from Portland State University with a master’s degree in social work, Cross returned to the Seneca reservation in western New York to connect with his people and make a difference.

“I thought I’d change the world, right all the wrongs, but I got knocked off my pony big time,” said Cross, who had a Seneca mother and white father.

He experienced prejudice from Indians and non-Indians as he tried to protect Tribal children. A supervisor of education at a boarding school told him they knew how to work with “their Indians.”

“I knew I was a target and that my time was at an end,” Cross said. “They succeeded at running me out of town. I knew if there was anything I could do to help change things, I’d dedicate my life to it.”

Cross said ICWA became law because up to 95 percent of Indian children who were adopted went to non-Indian homes; something adult adoptees never get over.

“For every child that is lost, there are a whole lot of broken hearts in the families; a part of them is missing,” he said.

ICWA established a path for Tribes to reassert their authority, run child welfare in their own communities and create legal structure put programs in place. Cross was called upon to help.
In 1983 he created the Northwest Indian Child Welfare Institute, which went nationwide as NICWA in 1994. The organization has written more than 20 curriculums for Tribes to use for training.

Tony Bullington, Center for Behavioral Health assistant clinical director, said the Seminole Tribe and NICWA are discussing the possibility of a training program here. CBH is responsible for about 100 children in foster care and another 10 in the Big Cypress youth home who are awaiting foster homes.

Finding family placement for the children is the department’s priority. Bullington said the children are thriving, being cared for and loved. CBH encourages parents to contact the children.

“We train staff that they are advocates for the child first,” he said. “ICWA is always in play; we use it to guide proceedings and we follow the guidelines.”

Guidelines include placing a child first with a relative or a Tribal foster family. The group home is a temporary solution with a capacity for up to 18 children.

“No child should have to experience abuse and neglect,” Cross said. “All of us need to have our eyes and ears on children because there is so much that can go wrong. When we see people make bad choices, we have to say that is not OK.”

Cross spoke about trauma inflicted on Tribes during European colonization and how it affects Native Americans today. He said all Indians have trauma in their DNA.

“They dismembered our people and our families,” he said. “I’m angry at conditions that cause us to turn against one another when we are in trouble. We have a level of trauma that keeps us from being able to love and trust one another. Those families are broken because they are so hurt by the past.”

The way to strengthen community and family bonds is with “a loving word, comforting touch and an offer of help when someone is struggling,” Cross said.

“Every family deserves respect but each of us needs to be willing to step up and help,” Cross said. “Stopping the trauma today is the only way to heal the trauma of the past.”

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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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