Film explores Native American child displacement
There is a thread that connects a child to their culture,
to their sense of self, home and belonging.
When that thread is broken or missing, the individual and the culture suffer.
Can the thread be mended? Can connection be restored?
Rucinski & Reetz Communication unveiled its video titled “Missing Threads: The Story of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act
.” The hour-long documentary represents nearly three years of work and “explores the connection between family, tribal culture and children, and the consequences of severing those ties,” said Susan Reetz, a partner in the communication firm.
At one time, one in four American Indian children were removed from their homes and placed with white families, according to the film. The practice occurred well into the 20th century, spurring the passage of a 1978 federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, requiring state, county and private agencies to follow specific processes when removing Indian children from their homes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Those processes sought to ensure that government and private agencies would make an effort to place children in Indian families. The film documents the passage of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act, which became law in 2009, and was designed to bolster and add to the federal law.
“It really was the deprivation of a race,” said retired state senator Robert Jauch, one of the sponsors of the 2009 law. “It was unexcusable, unacceptable and avoidable.”
Indian children could have been removed from their families for a variety areas, but many were “taken from their homes simply because a paternalistic state system failed to recognize traditional Indian culture and expected Indian children to conform to non-Indian ways,” wrote B.J. Jones of the Dakota Plains Legal Services in a piece published by the American Bar Association.
The documentary explores how the practice of placing children in non-Indian families affected individual lives. Forest County Potawatomi Chief Judge Eugene White-Fish and Loa Porter, a Ho-Chunk Nation grandmother, both talk about their experiences of being taken from their families and placed in non-Indian households as children.
“When I was removed from my family, I was 6, maybe going on 7 years old,” Porter said in the documentary interview. She remembers her sister screaming as white social workers took them away, her mother watching helplessly. “It was very, very traumatic,” Porter said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
White-Fish recounts being shuffled from family to family. “I went through six different foster homes in the time before I turned 18,” he said. “I went through six different organized religions. It was very confusing because … I didn’t feel like I fit.”
The goal of the act is to ensure that child welfare officials, when placing American Indian foster children, do whatever is possible to place them with Indian caregivers, Reetz said. The law means that all efforts should be made to place Indian children with close family members. If that’s not possible, they should be placed within their tribe, and if that’s not possible, with another Indian family.
Reetz, who co-produced the documentary with Michelle Danforth, said the project was distinctive. “I feel it is an important social issue,” she said.
The piece will be used to educate social workers, attorneys, judges and the general public about the issue and how the law works. It debuted at ArtStart in Rhinelander. By late spring, the film should be widely available for free viewing on YouTube, Reetz said.
Of course I was aware of the tragic circumstances in tribal communities that led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, but Missing Threads put faces to those tragedies for children, children who lost their families and culture by placement into foster care. These are not just any faces, but the faces of Wisconsin tribal leaders, which makes it so much more poignant, to know that the very Indian children harmed by the lack of a law to protect them were also part of the movement that successfully incorporated ICWA into Wisconsin law. The story could not be more inspiring! ―Merriel Kruse, Quality Review Section, Bureau of Performance Management, Division of Management Services, Wisconsin Department of Children and Families