FARMINGTON — The task of finding adoptive families for American Indian children is becoming increasingly difficult and troublesome.
In the past week, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an unusual case, one that has not received much attention in the Southwest even though it is particularly relevant in a region with substantial American Indian populations.
The case is one that challenges the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law that aimed to keep adopted American Indian children in American Indian homes. The law today, with a dwindling American Indian population, is splitting some children from families that are not American Indian, but are meeting the children's needs in every other way.
"The first thing to understand is that we always try to prevent the removal of a child from the home," said Jared Rounsville, division director for protective services of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, or CYFD.
The state deals with American Indian children quite frequently. About 1 in 10 children put into the state's custody are American Indian.
"It's not easy," Rounsville said.
With American Indian children, CYFD follows a line of action that will try to keep the child as closely tied to his or her roots as possible.
The department first must look to relatives, then to members of the child's tribe, then to members of any American Indian tribe, and, lastly, to a family that is not American Indian.
"We then have to work with the tribe to find a non-Native American family that meets their standards," said Rounsville, who noted that the tribe will turn down a non-American Indian family from time to time.
"There are disagreements," he said. A disagreement between the state and the tribe then is decided by a judge, who will determine if a child's bond to a family is strong enough that it undermines the child's cultural needs.
For many non-American Indian families wanting to adopt American Indian children, the reasoning is out-of-date.
In the current Supreme Court case, Matt and Melanie Capobianco are fighting to get back custody of a little girl they legally adopted even before she was born. The biological mother had agreed to the adoption, and the father signed away his rights.
It wasn't until after the little girl, Veronica, was born that the paternal father, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, decided he wanted his daughter. The Capobiancos, neither of them American Indian, lost their daughter and now must wait for the court's decision.
"I think it's bull crap," said Renee Hutchens, of Aztec, about the push-pull situation.
Hutchens adopted Shana Hutchens, now 17, in 2011, and the young woman's life has improved. She is more or less staying out of trouble, and, for the first time in her schooling, she is passing all of her classes even earning a few As.
Shana is a member of the Navajo Nation.
Her grandfather was a code talker, one of the Navajo men who joined the U.S. military to form a code based on Din language during World War II to help defeat Japanese adversaries. She grew up in Farmington, not far from the reservation.
And her new family is white.
Shana was in and out of 28 homes before arriving at the Hutchens'. She had been in the hospital and in jail for her erratic behavior, which in years past halted adoption with three families in mid-process.
Shana even tried to sabotage the Hutchens' adoption efforts. After Shana tried to press false abuse charges against Renee, Renee still wanted to move forward with making Shana a new family member.
"We told them (CYFD officials) we still wanted her, and I think that was a turning point in her life," Renee said.
"I think it shouldn't matter what race or religion you are," Renee said. "If that family takes them into their home, and loves them that's what they need."
Renee nurtures Shana's interest in her heritage as much as she can, and she turns to her Navajo friends for things she can't help with like knowledge about rituals, traditions, and history.
While not American Indian, Renee feels that her family encourages Shana to explore her heritage as much as any other good family would, no matter their background.
Still, there is something to be said about keeping American Indian children in American Indian families, social services officials say.
Patricia Hale, a San Juan County CYFD recruiter, said she understands the purpose behind the Indian Child Welfare Act, and sees where it is helpful to children.
"Having that cultural identity maintained, it's good for families," Hale said.
At times, the department will look out-of-state for families that can provide children with that identity, especially for Navajo children because their tribe overlaps three states.
Still there are not enough American Indian families looking to adopt, especially with economic times being rough. As of late, several families who used to be reliable foster families, and at times were open to adoption, have backed off the list of go-to families.
The department was unable to provide the number of families available currently in the state, and in San Juan County, this week, but the number of American Indian families available is substantially fewer, officials said.
The department does not track how many American Indian children get placed in homes with families of the same tribe or in homes with families of American Indian background.
"It is a challenge," Hale said. "Do we have a need? We have a need."
If you or someone you know is interested in helping to foster or adopt children, contact the Children, Youth and Families Department at 1-800-432-2075 or at CYFD.org.