At the first meeting of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with members of a Native community, held September 24 at Sipayik, Belinda Miliano-Bernard, who was placed as a child in a non-Native foster home, said she feels "vulnerable when I talk about my story. I know I can't get my childhood back, but I can heal. We can be a voice for the children in our community." Miliano-Bernard, who is now a community organizer with Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a community-based program dedicated to assisting with the healing process, added, "We don't have to let what happened in the past continue. We can't do it alone, but we can do it together."
Over the next two to three years, the commission aims to find out the truth about the abuses that happened to Wabanaki people in the Maine child welfare system, give Wabanaki people a place to share their stories and begin healing, and give the child welfare system suggestions on how it can work better with Wabanaki people. The first official visit of the commission to Sipayik will be in November.
Heather Martin, executive director of the TRC, notes about the commission, "To ask people to trust us, they have to know who we are as a people first." The TRC also will be working with non-Native communities. "We want all to feel they have a voice and a place in the conversation," says Martin. Fundamental to the commission's purpose is the creation of "a safe and welcoming space for everyone to tell their story," including not only Natives who were taken from their families and communities but also social workers, foster parents or police. "They all have distinct perspectives," says Martin, and while some of the ideas presented might be in conflict with others, the airing of the different points of view will be how "a community perspective about what happened" can be developed. That development is "where change on the individual level and on a systematic level can take place."
"My hope is there will be a greater understanding between the two cultures," Martin says, noting that she is now aware of her own limitations in understanding about a culture that was under siege. She comments that, with such highly emotionally charged issues, it will be impossible to avoid the subject of blame, but "the goal is not to affix blame." She says the goal through the exploration of the truth about what happened is to reach healing. "It's less about blaming but more about the exploring of the wrongs of the past so we can avoid them in the future," she observes. "Blame doesn't go very far, but acknowledging wrongdoing allows us to go somewhere constructive with it."
During the public meeting with the commissioners, Esther Attean, co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, noted that her group will be preparing the Wabanaki communities for the TRC process through education about the child welfare programs and "the attempted genocide" of a people, and also will be working with Maine citizens to help them understand about the historical trauma and white privilege. In addition, the group will be ensuring that support is available for those affected. Attean noted that one of the most fundamental ways to create support is for the community to become aware about what people went through in the state's child welfare system. "Clearly, silence is not working for us," she observed.
Denise Altvater, the youth outreach and education coordinator with Maine-Wabanaki REACH, echoed Attean's comments, pointing out that a safety net is needed for those who tell their stories, or else they can go through difficult times such as she has had to endure. "If we open up these wounds, there will be people there to catch them if they need it." Commissioner Gail Werrbach noted that a support system, including counselors, talking circles and ritual healing ceremonies, will be in place when people tell their stories, "so that people aren't in isolation with their pain."
Commissioner Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in Sough Dakota, related that she has her own story of trauma by being adopted out of her community, but now "I have taken back my power and am using my voice." She noted, "We want to be mindful that we're visitors to this land, and we ask your forgiveness if anything we might say is disrespectful of you. We're here to learn. We're here with open hearts, we're here with grateful hearts and we're here with great humbleness to hear from you."
Commission Co-chair Carol Wishcamper said that the commission's charge is to seek the truth, to open up pathways to healing and to outline better child welfare practices that will effect change. "We want to get a sense of who you are and how you want your stories portrayed to the wider world." She noted that relating the stories to those outside of the Wabanaki communities will help with creating change.
Werrbach, who is a social worker and a faculty member of the University of Maine School of Social Work, said she feels a strong sense of responsibility in terms of the wrongs that social workers have committed. She noted that just recently a social worker in Minnesota recommended taking a child out of his community, which demonstrates the need for the commission's work. The commission will be speaking with Maine child welfare staff and social workers and clinicians who worked with Native communities to learn about their decisions that caused so much trauma.
Commission Co-chair Matt Dunlap, who also is the Maine secretary of state and previously served in the legislature, said he has seen "far too many prescriptive programs from Augusta to save the tribes" and did not want to be part of another such one. Government should not just follow the law but should be trying to help people, he commented. "It's the exceptions that are hard" to figure out how to handle, he said. He added, "There is comfort in sharing the anguish. We're going to share the anguish and will embrace that." He observed that trauma can continue through generations if it's never addressed.
While the commission will not be looking at the issue of reparations, it's possible that people will ask for some monetary redress for the wrongs committed. While some pointed to the need for reparations to help Native communities develop the infrastructure to support themselves, Denise Altvater also commented, "For what happened to me, there is no money in the world that will bring back my childhood, my humanity. What will bring that back is healing." And while some people have expressed their fear that opening up these wounds will lead to more substance abuse -- drinking and doing drugs -- Altvater noted that is what many are doing now, "but we're not speaking about it and we're not healing."