When joining a lawsuit that could deeply affect children and families for generations, an attorney general might be expected to heed the advice of a state’s child welfare agency which works directly with these families.
Not so with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.
In 2017, Landry joined the attorneys general of Texas and Indiana in a lawsuit brought by a non-Native Texas couple who were initially denied the opportunity to adopt a Native child they had fostered. Their adoption petition was denied based on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The federal ICWA helps ensure that child welfare systems pay attention to the unique needs of Native children and utilize the experience and knowledge of tribal nations in working with Native families and children in the child welfare system.
Reasonable people can argue about the merits of the Texas case. In fact, the couple was later allowed to adopt the child, and yet the case continues and will be heard in the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 13.
Judging by the attorney general placing Louisiana as a plaintiff in the case, most people would surmise Louisiana had challenges placing Native foster children in this state. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As we informed Landry’s office when his staff contacted us prior to joining the case, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services enjoys a good working relationship with our four federally recognized tribal nations.
They work with DCFS staff to establish foster placements, finalize adoptions, and provide services and supports to Native children and families in DCFS care. This is an important relationship, and we want it to continue.
So we were surprised when, two days later, Louisiana joined the federal lawsuit.
As DCFS secretary, I’m sympathetic with the position of the foster parents who are plaintiffs in this case. But I cannot ignore the family ties that form the root of our most successful foster placements.
As someone who has worked with Native American communities in Louisiana, Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona and other states, I know Native communities feel strongly about protecting ICWA and its preservation of Native American families and culture.
We have not always done well by tribal nations in this country. Fortunately, Congress recognized this truth and enacted the ICWA legislation in 1978 to end destructive practices of the past.
Working with the community to build strong families is in the best interests of the child. This is not just what we in Louisiana believe. It’s a central tenet of child welfare principles everywhere.
We work with foster and adoptive children every day who tell us they want to be close to their birth family. It’s why our priority in foster care is to keep children with relatives and as close as possible to the people and places they know and love.
Tribal families have been doing this since time began — without interference from the state. Why would our attorney general take any action that flies in the face of this practice, especially when his child welfare agency provides information to the contrary?
Marketa Garner Walters is secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.
Around almost a thousand Thanksgiving tables this year, new families have come into being for children who needed them the most.