Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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There are many fallouts from COVID-19: education, healthcare, economics, mental health and more. Some of the hardest hit communities were the Native American communities in New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, over 50 percent of COVID deaths last year were from the Native community. At the same time, the number of Native American children entering the Children Youth and Family system increased. As we look at Native American children in the New Mexico foster care system, the need for foster families is at an all-time high. There simply aren’t many foster families in the system. Not before COVID and certainly not during the pandemic. So why is that? It’s a complex issue, both legally and culturally, but at the heart of it are children who need a home.

The Paper. spoke to Therese Yanan at the Native American Disability Law Center and Bette Fleishman, director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children. They said overall, there was actually a decrease in the number of children in the system in New Mexico. In the calendar year 2019, there were 1,525 children entered into CYFD custody. The following year 2020 that number dropped to 1,209. 

A statement from the Kevin S. v. Blalock Co-Neutrals’ Baseline and 2020 Annual Report for CYFD that was released this November clearly stated that, “Although the number of children in custody decreased year over year from 2019 to 2020, the length of stay in care for children in state custody was similar.” 

There was an increase in Native American children entering the system—from 134 or 6.1 percent in 2019 to 147 or 7.4 percent in 2020. The increase of Native children in the foster care system happened after children’s biological or legal guardians have passed. Native American families often live with several generations in one house, and we saw that, tragically, many family members in one household would contract COVID.

Therese Yanan said, “I think it’s important that people realize that when the state takes custody of a child, they also take responsibility for that child. And the state currently does not have the appropriate number or type of placements that these children need. And that is to the detriment of the children. That’s not just Native children, that’s across the board. And I think it’s really important that New Mexico start focusing on the future of our communities. Having said that with regard to Native children, I think it’s important to understand that there’s a very different relationship between tribes and the state than there are between other communities and the state.” 

Pegasus Legal Services for Children recently received a grant to survey the Native American community and study what are the obstacles to getting more Native families to sign up to be foster parents.

The ICWA law or Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law that provides guidance to states regarding the handling of child abuse and neglect and adoption cases involving Native children. The act sets minimum standards for the handling of these cases. The clear intention is to keep children at home within their tribal community. Most recently in N.M. this law has had a change in language from “reasonable efforts” to “active efforts.” One of only six ICWA courts was established in N.M. in 2018.

Tribal communities, just like many others, have a long history of extended families raising children outside the average “nuclear family.” Aunts, grandmothers and sisters, at times of need, can all become your surrogate mother, your family. So why are so few Native families foster families?

According to Yanan, some of the hesitancy is the system created to track families and children. There are long and invasive background checks and interviews. Intense training is now done online. Yanan says families bow out after frustration in the process. “Some of the questions were so invasive and the way CYFD looked at it is, such as asking the adults if they had experienced abuse or neglect when they were a child. Many people won’t go into the details about it.”  After much pressure, many potential foster parents, “were, like, you know, this is a really painful part of my history, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Stereotypes can change and maybe all it takes is really educating the public and continually pushing the subject. Bette Fleishman added, “Down the line, there should be much more of what we call ‘active efforts’ before a child is even taken into state custody. As soon as there’s a problem, how can we—meaning the whole community: CYFD, the Pueblo elders and everyone—step in, maybe do a peacemaking circle and do whatever is appropriate to see if the support system can be made before the kid is removed. We don’t kick in until the kid is actually already removed into state custody. and we do our best to get them back home as soon as possible with the least amount of alarm. We, as the whole state, can do better about doing much more at the front end before a child’s even taken into state custody.”

Terese expanded upon this work in tribal communities, saying, “There’s a fundamentally different relationship and a different interest because of the historical context within which we’re functioning. Native children need their communities. They need to know from where they came, and they need to have that foundation. They need to have that grounding and they need to have those communities have the opportunity to wrap themselves around the child, welcome the child back and give the child the foundation and the healthy input and supports that only they can give. And that doesn’t mean that non-Native parents or non-Native foster families don’t care about Native kids. It doesn’t mean that other parts of the community don’t care about these kids. These kids need more people to care about them, but Native children need that connection with their community in order to know who they are, to be the best healthiest version of themselves.” 

The Paper. reached out to CYFD for comment but had not received a response as of press time.