Adopting Native American children

by ALLISON JOHNSON

Alpine residents Katherine Thompson, 43, and her husband Joseph, 48, were devastated when they found out they could not have children. After exploring several options, they decided to adopt. However, it took the couple more than five years to finally receive a child because of one major stipulation. The child had to be Native American. 

Native American adoption always has been a complex issue. In 1958, the Indian Adoption Project was created by the Child Welfare League of America and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to CWLA, the project placed Native American children with white foster and adoptive families. The project was part of a widespread ideal that Native American children needed to be “integrated” into white society.

According to a study conducted by the First Nations Orphan Association, as many as 68 percent of all Native American children  between 1941 and 1978 were placed in orphanages, boarding schools, foster homes, or were adopted at one point in their lives.  

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the act made Native American adoption more ethical. Since then, NICWA has worked to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act and promote the rights of Native American families and tribes.

Today, thanks to efforts like the Indian Child Welfare Act, Native American adoption is much more ethical. However, it is yet to become mainstream. When the Thompsons wanted to adopt a Native child, they did not know where to start.

“Since we are Native American, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine said. “However, adopting a full Native American child is very difficult.”

They initiated the adoption process in 1994, but could never seem to find any agencies that specialized in — or even knew anything about — Native American adoption. They worked with many national adoption agencies, but had no luck.

 “We could not find any information anywhere,” Katherine said. “Resources were just not out there.” 

When given the chance to adopt an African American child in 1997, the Thompsons decided not to go through with it because of cultural reasons.

“While we would certainly love a child of any race, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine explained. “We wanted to be able to share our culture with our child and pass on those traditions. We didn’t feel we could do that with an African American child.”

Finally, in 1998, they discovered an adoption agency called the Cherokee Nation Adoption Program. The agency specializes in placing Cherokee children with adoptive parents. Katherine and Joseph, who are Navajo, were relieved to finally find an agency who could help them.

“Within nine months of finding [the agency] we adopted Isabel. We were thrilled,” Joseph said. “She is our joy.”

Today, Isabel is an 8-year-old third grader. Her elementary school teacher, Susan Jones, believes Katherine and Joseph have done a good job of teaching Isabel about her Cherokee culture.

“She seems to be very well adjusted,” Jones said. “I can tell that she is aware of her heritage and is proud of it.”

Some couples, like the Thompsons, want to adopt Native American children because of cultural reasons. Other couples find that the opportunity just falls right into their laps.

Salt Lake City residents Julian Sanford, 39, and his wife, Megan, 35, have been foster parents for the past seven years. In July 2004, they began fostering a young Navajo child, Hannah.

“We had never fostered an Indian child before,” said Megan. “It was a big change when Hannah came to live with us.”

After fostering the child for six months, the couple decided they would like to adopt Hannah. The adoption process lasted more than a year, but, finally, Hannah officially became part of the family.

“Finally adopting [Hannah] didn’t change how we felt about her,” Julian said. “We loved Hannah the second we met her and have always considered her our daughter.” 

Initially, the Sanfords were worried about raising a Native American child. More than three years after adopting Hannah, it is still a concern, but has gotten easier.

“We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to teach [Hannah] about her culture,” Megan said. “Over the past few years we have made a real effort to make sure Hannah knows about her heritage. We want it to be a part of her life.”

The Sanfords have been introducing Hannah to other Native American children, taking her to cultural celebrations and teaching her about Cherokee history to make sure she grows up with a strong sense of identity.