SIOUX CITY — A beaded eagle feather is among Frank LaMere's most prized possessions.
The brother of a young mother, who committed suicide soon after her parental rights were terminated two years ago, beaded the feather and asked family members to give it to LaMere to thank him for fighting for Native children in foster care.
The man, whom LaMere never met, took his life a year after his sister's death.
“We had her funeral here,” LaMere said, tearing up as he stood in the reception area at the Four Directions Community Center — a place where Native parents now come to attend a 16-week course to help them regain control of their lives and the children they have lost in the foster care system.
The Four Directions Parenting Program is one way LaMere, the Siouxland Native community and the Iowa Department of Human Services are working together to protect Native children and their families.
Between 100 and 200 people will gather at the Marina Inn this morning for the eighth annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children. The march remembers those children who have died or who have been lost in foster care in Siouxland.
“I don't think it's a leap to say that we've lost hundreds, even thousands of our children through the intervention of the child welfare system in the state of Iowa,” LaMere said. “We memorialize that loss and we remember those children.”
When rights are terminated
At the march, LaMere said, the Native community will elevate the discussion of the restoration of parental rights with the Iowa DHS.
He said it is not out of the ordinary for Native parents to have their parental rights terminated in their teens or early 20s before they have had a chance to work through their problems.
“The state of Iowa and DHS have to take ownership of an organizational culture that said it's OK to terminate Native parental rights even before you are 20 years old,” LaMere said. “We have stated that for a long time, but it has fallen on deaf ears.”
Tom Bouska, the DHS regional manager for western Iowa, said situations that lead to the termination of parental rights, such as alcohol and drug abuse, neglect and poverty, often change years after the child is removed from the home.
The Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs is discussing the feasibility of introducing legislation that would help Native parents work toward regaining their parental rights. They are using a bill that recently passed the Illinois Legislature as a model.
Bouska said the bill, which was spearheaded by the African American community, impacts children age 13 and older who have been in the foster care system without a permanent placement for three or more years.
The legislation directs the Department of Children and Family Services to locate the parent whose rights were terminated. If the conditions that led to the termination have changed, the court will take action to restore parental rights.
March will cross
Three empty chairs, pendelton blankets and teddy bears will be placed at the Marina Inn today to remember Nathaniel Saunsoci-Mitchell, Larissa Starr-Red Owl and Hannah Thomas — children who lost their lives in foster care.
A fourth empty chair will represent unknown children who died in foster care.
LaMere explained that medicine men from the Pine Ridge Reservation will separate baby food, cupcakes and snack crackers — the favorite foods of the children — to allow their spirits to be with the marchers.
The group will then walk over the Veterans Memorial Bridge into Iowa to symbolize the journey their fathers and grandfathers took after World War II in hopes of finding a better way of life for themselves and their children in Iowa.
Marchers will sing songs of remembrance and offer up prayers at the Woodbury County Courthouse and the Trosper-Hoyt County Services Building which houses the DHS.
Eight years ago, LaMere said the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Native Community would voice their concerns and then walk away.
Today, both sides bring their issues to the table and work on them until a resolution is reached.
“We have our good days and we have our bad days, but at the end of the day there's still a strong collaboration,” LaMere said.
Iowa DHS spokesman Roger Munns said one of the major goals of the redesign of the Iowa child welfare system in 2005 was to reduce the disparity of Native children in foster care.
“We have gone to great lengths to make sure we have culturally competent assessors working with Native families, that we rigorously enforce the Iowa Indian Child Welfare Act and that we keep the tribes in the loop on child welfare cases,” he said.
Research conducted by Brad Richardson of the University of Iowa's School of Social Work, shows that the state is making progress in reducing racial disparities.
Although Native children made up 3.9 percent of Woodbury County's population in 2005, they represented 19.5 percent of all of the children in their first out-of-home placement in the county, a disparity of 5 to 1.
In 2008, 3.8 percent of all of the children in Woodbury County were Native children, but they accounted for 12.5 percent of all of the children in their first placement in the county, a disparity of 3.2 to 1.
“I think it's important for us to recognize the past and learn from it,” Bouska said. “But we need to move forward and concentrate on what's going on presently and improve the conditions of each of the children and families we work with.”
Teaching about life
The Four Directions Parenting Program doesn't teach parents how to balance their check books or how to cook nourishing meals for their children, but it teaches them how to cope with real life.
In the two years that the program, which is underwritten by the Iowa DHS, has been in existence, LaMere said 63 parents have spent up three hours every Tuesday for 16 weeks to learn how to navigate the “minefield” that is the child welfare system and give voice to their children in the courtroom and in the home.
They learn how to set boundaries, state their case, articulate their needs and take ownership of their current situation and their future.
Three sessions are devoted to the topic of alcohol and drug abuse.
“We work to make our people well, and then we work to bring our families back together,” LaMere said. “I think in Indian Country from our perspective here that is the most important thing that we can do.”
Participants are given appointment books, in which they write down court dates, treatment appointments, meetings and visitation times with their children. Each week, LaMere asks them what their toughest day is.
“If a certain day becomes overwhelming for you and you're not prepared for it, it is easy to throw your hands up in the air and say, 'I give up. I'm overwhelmed,'” LaMere said. “We cause our folks to understand when Friday comes around and nothing goes right, you have no crutch.”
LaMere said he has had “several disappointments” during the program, but that he is “very pleased” with the overall results.
Tuesday night at a ceremony held at the Marina Inn, nine parents received graduation certificates from the program. Two others, who are entering substance abuse treatment facilities, received participation certificates.
“It's one family at a time. It's one person at a time,” LaMere said.