MEET L.A.’S ONE AND ONLY NATIVE AMERICAN FOSTER MOM
A look at the urgent need for foster families to give LA County’s Native American foster kids a place to belong.
by Daniel Heimpel
Lisa Smith and her two daughters peer out the front windows of their Diamond Bar, California, home.
“We were that anxious,” 49-year-old Smith says, recalling the afternoon in March.
They see a car pull up, and hurry to the curb. Inside are the two boys the family has been waiting for.
Smith immediately takes the younger boy, still a toddler, in her arms while her teenage daughter holds the hand of the older one.
Newly expanded, the family, alongside a pair of social workers, walks into the house and heads straight for the boys’ new room. For weeks, Smith, her husband and their three children have been stocking the bedroom with toys, baby clothes and the blankets that the Smith children slept in when they were little.
“This is home,” Smith tells the older boy. “These toys are yours forever.”
Smith cries with joy, overcome.
And while the transition is, on its face, easy, something about it concerns Smith.
The boys don’t ask when they will be going back home.
“They wanted to stay,” Smith explains. “And that’s hard – for them to not have that bond to where they came from.”
For Smith, the boys’ severance from their family strikes a chord. Like them, Smith grew up a member of the Cherokee Nation. She can track her roots back to the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s, when thousands of her ancestors were marched west from their native lands. For Native children, foster care is often the final tug that forever breaks the strands of shared tribal culture.
Smith wants to turn back the clock, rebuild the boys’ lives and strengthen her tribe. That’s why, only weeks before this bittersweet moment, she decided to become Los Angeles County’s one-and-only Native American foster mom.
“Within, you carry that pride, and you carry that pride onto the next generation,” Smith says. “And that’s what I am hoping, that with the children, I can serve to let them know that you’re a part of something larger, part of our [Cherokee] family here and across the United States.”
But for Native American children who enter the foster care system, being placed with a Native foster parent is far from guaranteed. Mistrust, a lack of accountability and a decades-long dearth of initiative has led many child welfare jurisdictions, Los Angeles included, to remain wildly out of compliance with federal legislation aimed at keeping tribes and Native families intact.
TERMINATION & RELOCATION = FOSTER CARE
L.A. County is home to one of the largest urban Native American populations in the country. Members of the great tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw and Navajo – are part of a diverse 152,000-person community, which also includes the local Tongva, Tataviam and some southern Chumash peoples.
Many, like Smith’s family, came during the Termination and Relocation Era, which started in the late 1940s and ran through the 50s, when the U.S. Congress set out on an explicit policy to assimilate Native Americans by forcing them to relinquish their lands and sovereignty. Tribes’ assets were liquidated, and their children were removed into foster care at increasing rates.
Relocation entailed offers of jobs, housing, job training and cash awards to Native families in exchange for moving off their lands and into urban centers like Los Angeles. These promised supports often did not materialize. Smith’s relatives fell into poverty, forcing her grandmother to engage in prostitution to support the family.
Smith holds onto photos of her uncle, James Cantrell, picking cotton and pears in the San Joaquin Valley in 1949, one year after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officially launched its Relocation Program. She calls the photos “propaganda.”
“Who smiles when they’re picking cotton?” she asks sardonically.
For Smith’s family, and that of many other Native Americans, the dual policies of Termination and Relocation threatened to erase tribal bonds already frayed by successive waves of U.S. efforts to snuff out Native culture.
In Los Angeles and across the U.S., Native Americans, lured from their ancestral lands and the reservations they had been moved to, had to submit to the same laws that governed all Americans, including its child-protection policies.
In California and Los Angeles in particular, Native Americans soon found their children entering foster care at disproportionately high rates. According to the Children’s Data Network, a research institution housed within the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, nearly 9 percent of all 839 Native American children born in California in 2006 and 2007 would enter foster care by age 5, compared to 2.4 percent of white babies and 6.4 percent of black babies. The same held true in L.A. County, where 10.9 percent of Native children entered foster care by their fifth birthday, compared to 2 percent of white children and 7 percent of black children.
THE CHALLENGE OF RECRUITING NATIVE AMERICAN FOSTER PARENTS
Today, the Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which oversees the county’s foster care system, says that it cares for 169 Native American children, 120 of whom are handled by the so-called “American Indian Unit.” Despite being established in 1999, the 10-person team has long struggled to recruit and retain Native American foster parents like Lisa Smith.
This struggle is rooted in the understandable mistrust the Native American community has of government agencies, and inconsistent efforts by the non-native child welfare system to let Native Americans lead foster parent recruitment efforts.
“Historically, when you look at the nature of the relationship between government and American Indians in general, there’s a history of distrust there,” says Robert Rodriguez, the American Indian Unit’s supervisor. “And, so, it has been very difficult, I think, for us to break through the barrier, to get that trust from the community and for them to understand the process.”
Rodriguez, who is of Yaqui and Comanche descent, is sitting next to David White, the regional administrator who oversees the unit, who has no Native blood.
The two cannot recall DCFS recruiting any Native foster homes despite both having spent years in the American Indian Unit. In 2014 they decided things had to change, and stepped up their efforts. So when Smith agreed to care for the two Cherokee boys this past February, it was a big moment.
“We are very protective of her,” White says.
Smith says she had serious misgivings about working with a foster care system known for dismantling Native families.
“It took me some time before I trusted DCFS and the American Indian Unit,” she says. “I had to see that they were coming with the right intentions and the right way to make a difference for our children.”
For Sherry White, a Ho-Chunk Indian originally from Wisconsin, and a close confidant of Smith’s within Los Angeles’ vibrant Native community, mistrust of the system started at an early age. White was placed into foster care with a white family at the age of 2. She refers to her foster mom as “Suzy Homemaker” and her foster father as “Satan.”
After leaving care at 17 to attend college, White had two children of her own. In 1982, after a particularly cold Wisconsin winter, she packed her two boys up and moved to Los Angeles.
Her boys now men and she now 61, White is seeing the system from a new perspective, as the informal foster mom to a brother and sister who hail from the Lakota tribe. Despite her own terrible experience with the foster care system, she decided that she needed to get involved.
“When I think about our Native children being placed in non-Native homes, which is something that is happening to about 200 children in L.A. County because of the lack of Native foster homes, [it] gets me a little riled up inside,” White says. “If the families do not let the children know they are Native and can’t teach them their Native culture, their traditions, their language, we’ve lost our children.”
The children grow up knowing they’re different, knowing that there’s something special about them, and they may grow angry, [and] they don’t know why they’re angry because nobody’s taught them that they are special.”
While Smith’s decision to take in two Cherokee boys gives the American Indian unit a sense of pride, it also points to a foster care system both here and across the country that gives federally mandated protections of Native American foster children short shrift.