Providing Native children who were taken from their families and suffered abuse in foster care in Maine the chance to tell their stories may not only unearth the truth about the child welfare system and help with their own healing but may also cause that system to be changed. That process was launched on May 24 at Indian Island, when Wabanaki chiefs and Governor Paul LePage, members of the Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group and Maine Indian Tribal State Commission (MITSC) representatives signed a declaration of intent to create a truth and reconciliation process. They pledged to undertake a first‑in‑the‑nation effort to uncover the truth about Wabanaki experiences with the child welfare system, implement changes and promote healing. This process will be centered around a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Denise Altvater of Pleasant Point, who signed as the representative of MITSC, observes, "We need to help Native people heal and give them space so they can have a voice about when they were taken from their communities and placed in non-Native homes."
Altvater says that Native children often were traumatized by either the removal from their homes or abuses that took place in foster care. That trauma then is passed on through generations, as those who were taken from their homes are not able to be good parents for their children. She believes that cycle is part of the reason why there are many problems in tribal communities today.
"I could tell you horror stories of what they did to us," says Altvater, who herself was taken from her parents and placed in a non-Native home. "They were imaginative in their cruelty. I still suffer the effects of what they did to me."
"I didn't realize when I told my story that I even had a story," she says, recalling how she fell apart as she first told it 13 years ago. She and five of her six sisters were taken from their parents' home and placed with a non-Native family in the state where they were abused in different ways. Along with sexual molestation, the children would be punished by being locked in a dirt cellar that had rats and spiders. The foster parents would unscrew the one light bulb, and the children would sit down there in the cold and dark throughout the night. "We would sit there and shiver and cry until morning time when they would let us out," she remembers. The foster parents also would lock up all of the food, and if she or her sisters were caught stealing any food they would not be allowed to eat for 24 hours. "They did it..." she says and stops to think. "I don't know why they did it."
She and her sisters were at the home for four years. Two of her sisters have since passed away, one when she was 42 and another two years ago. "It's been really hard," says Altvater of the hurt she and her sisters have carried.
"What happened to me when I was younger had a lot to do with why I couldn't parent my kids in a good way." Going through the pain of retelling her story, though, has helped her to heal. "I would do it all over again -- a million times over -- to be able to connect with and love my kids and grandkids. I couldn't do that before. It does a lot to help heal and transform you as a person."
During the signing ceremony, she related that since telling her story she has "learned to feel, care, love and, most of all, strive to become the person that the creator meant for me to be when I was born."
Altvater's story is not an uncommon one for many Native children. Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. government established boarding schools intended to solve the "Indian problem" through assimilation. During the 1950s and '60s, both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America had implemented policies to take Native children from their homes and place them in non-Native homes in order to assimilate them into American society. The policy was expressed by the saying, "Kill the Indian and save the man."
Yet while there was abuse and torture in some of the non-Native foster homes, other Native children were glad to be placed in the homes and recall that the foster parents were good to them, Altvater says.
In Canada, Natives who were abused in church-run residential schools ended up receiving a settlement from the federal government, with nearly $400 million provided to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Altvater, though, says, "For us, no amount of money will return our dignity and self-worth. Money is not the issue. Healing is the issue."
The tribal child welfare departments, MITSC and the Muskie School of Public Service having been working with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) since 1998 on the issue, and now 600 DHHS workers in the state have received training about the Indian Child Welfare Act. The act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1978, codifies higher standards of protection for the rights of Native children, their families and their tribal communities. The act states that "child welfare agencies had failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the culture and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families."
During the training, DHHS workers watch a video entitled "Belonging" in which Natives who have been abused in foster care tell their stories. "We wanted to show the state workers why the law is so important," says Altvater. "The feeling of just not belonging came out as we told our stories." Speaking about their experiences "transformed us," she relates, as they underwent the difficult process of retelling about past abuses. "We were dealing with something we didn't know we needed to deal with." Tribal community groups, including elders and counsellors, have also received the training, so they "know how to deal with the trauma."
Altvater, though, says more still needs to be done. "There are still walls in the way," she notes. For the past three years the state, the tribes and MITSC have worked on a declaration of intent concerning what each is willing to do to fully uphold the spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act. All five Wabanaki tribal governments, Governor LePage and MITSC have endorsed the commission process.
The commission will be made up of state and tribal members. Native people will be able to give testimony to commission members, either in open or private sessions. Members of the convening group also will be speaking in open forums about the issue. A report then will be issued, giving recommendations on steps to be taken to help ensure that Native children are able to live in a better environment.
At the signing of the declaration of intent, Governor LePage stated, "It is worthwhile to consider how our child welfare system has failed in the past so we can continue to improve the system. I see this process as a way to continue the strong working relationship that has developed in recent years between the tribes and the Department of Health and Human Services. I hope this is another step in strengthening state‑tribal relations."
Molly Newell, who is the director of the Passamaquoddy Human Services Department at Pleasant Point and has been a part of this process for over a decade, says, "Although at first I wasn't sold on this idea of opening old wounds, I now realize it is necessary to look back at the truth before we can heal and move forward. I am optimistic and hopeful -- I know we can do this."
At the ceremony, Altvater observed, "Without courage, we cannot be kind, truthful, merciful or whole. Anyone who has been treated unkindly, unfairly or experienced emotional or physical abuse aches for a safe place where they can be who they were born to be and not be judged or dehumanized. This is especially true for an innocent child."
"We will not be struggling in isolation but as members of a community who depend on each other, who benefit from each others' help in finding our way out of the darkness of the past. From that, everything begins -- equality, freedom and justice, but most important, a safe place."