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A Child's Place : The case of adopted Native American twins has raised issues of culture, law and parenting. At stake, the continuity of a people, the sanctity of the family--and the welfare of the girls.

November 21, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Karen Adams of West Covina saw the snapshot of the two black-haired babies with pink bows, she said she felt a flower blossom in her heart. They were her granddaughters, but she had never seen them because they had been given away to adoptive parents half a continent away.

No matter how well the couple cares for them, Adams, a descendant of Native Americans from a Northern California Pomo tribe, said the twins, now 2, don't belong with outsiders. Her plaint drew national attention earlier this year when her tribe joined the twins' parents in a lawsuit to get the children back. California appellate judges are currently considering the case.

"Indians believe your children are not just your possessions. Your children are the tribe," Adams said. "Where they belong is here. I fiercely believe that."

The case has raised the sensitive issues of transracial adoption and rights of biological parents who want their children back. But it has also triggered a national reassessment of how or even whether to protect modern descendants of the nation's original inhabitants.

The Adamses' ace card is a federal law, passed in 1978, to compensate for decades of deliberate separation and scattering of Native American families. That law gives Native Americans preference when Native American children need foster care or adoption.

The Adamses' biggest obstacle is a growing argument that, now, some "assimilated" Native American families don't qualify for protection.

In cases in which Native American children sent to non-Native American homes have later been identified as Native Americans, the foster parents are brokenhearted to find out the law requires them to relinquish the children, said Kathy Bridgeland, a family specialist with the Southern California Indian Center. "We hear things like, 'Why are Indian people doing this? Why punish the child?' "

Bridgeland said half the time she is able to find Native American homes for the children. But in Los Angeles County, there are only eight certified Native American foster-care homes for an estimated 150 children needing them.

Nevertheless, she said most Native Americans feel "very strongly" that Native American children belong in Native American families where their culture is available. "Not in 15 years have I come across Indian people who feel any differently," she said.

The feelings stem from historical family losses of staggering proportions. Prior to the year 1500, Native Americans numbered about 5 million in what is now the United States, but by 1900, they had dwindled to 250,000.

In California, a population of 100,000 declined by 85% between the start of the Gold Rush in 1849 and the turn of the century, largely due to massacres and disease.

Jim Cohen, volunteer attorney for the California tribe that has enrolled the twins, said, "A higher percentage of European Jews survived the Nazi Holocaust than California Indians survived the Gold Rush. When you put it in that perspective, it's easy to understand why Indian people care about every child."

Moreover, many Native Americans throughout the country still have fresh memories of the "boarding school" period that began in the late 19th Century and sanctioned the separation of parents and children, who were sent to boarding schools far from their homes. Some children were rounded up and taken against their parents' wills. Some were beaten for speaking their native language in the schools.

Other Native American children were placed on farms in the East and Midwest to learn the "values of work and the benefits of civilization," said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Assn., a nonprofit service and advocacy organization in Portland, Ore.

"It was the expressed policy to remove the culture from the child as a way to solve what was then called 'the Indian problem,' " he said. In the 1950s and '60s, the Child Welfare League of America in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs promoted the Indian Adoption project, based on the belief that Native American children were better off in non-Native American homes, he said.

Malcolm Margolin, publisher of the Berkeley-based "News From Native California," said the adoptions were undertaken with the best intentions to lift children out of poverty and provide advantages of the dominant culture. "Among some religious groups, there was almost a recruiting effort to convince young Indian parents to give up their kids for the good of the child, that they were selfish for keeping the child," he said.

By 1978, Congress found that state courts had removed one-quarter to one-third of all Native American children from their families and placed the majority into non-Native American homes, creating serious psychological problems for many children and devastating their families and tribes.

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