Utah lawmakers want to protect Native American adoptions — no matter how the Supreme Court rules

The state is looking at writing the Indian Child Welfare Act into state law so Native kids here will be fostered by Native parents.

(Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes, speaks on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Steele spoke on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in support of codifying a statewide version of the Indian Child Welfare Act in Utah.

Utah Foster Care worker Stephanie Benally recently found a home for several Navajo kids with a foster mom who is Apache.

Even though they aren’t from the same tribe, Benally said, the kids and the foster mom share a love for their Indigenous cultures. And the foster mom helps the kids understand and appreciate their Navajo, or Diné, identity.

Recently, Benally explained, the mom held a First Laugh Ceremony, or A’wee Chi’deedloh, for the youngest child. The sacred Navajo tradition celebrates a baby’s first laugh.

“She makes sure she provides that connection for her children,” Benally told Utah lawmakers Tuesday.

Benally, who is the Native American specialist for foster placements in the state, spoke about the importance she sees in keeping Native foster kids with Native parents — preferably with someone from their tribe or, if not possible, with another tribe. But sending those kids to a white home, she said, shouldn’t be an option; that would be harmful to Indigenous kids, who need to stay in touch with their culture and language.

The discussion Tuesday came as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which has protections against removing Native American children from their tribes. It came after years of taking Indigenous kids from their homes, placing them with institutions or families with no ties where many children reported abuse.

Utah’s attorney general — along with those from 25 other states — has joined the case on the side of the tribes, arguing in favor of upholding the law as protection for Native children. The court has also heard from families who believe there shouldn’t be racial preferences with foster care.

If the law is stricken, Utah legislators talked Tuesday about plans to enact a nearly identical version statewide that would codify the same preference for continuing to place Native kids with Native foster parents. The Native American Legislative Liaison Committee voted unanimously in support of running that bill for the upcoming session that starts in January.

Culture is “not something you can learn in a book,” Benally said. “It’s every day living. … Our children thrive when they are placed in Native homes.”

Rupert Steele, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes in west-central Utah, said he remembers when growing up that every time a white person would come to his home, he and his siblings would hide. They had heard of other kids in their tribe, he said, who were taken away.

“We were scared,” Steele said. “We were afraid that we would be taken away from our family circle, too. That fear existed for decades and decades for many Indian families across the United States.”

Steele talked about the “ugly history” in the United States in how Native kids have been treated. They were also removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, away from their parents, where they were forbidden to practice their culture and often forced to work.

“The state of Utah is no exception,” Steele said. (There were at least eight Indigenous boarding schools here, according to a list compiled by The Salt Lake Tribune.)

Taking Indigenous kids away from their tribes, in particular, Steele added, is a form of cultural erasure and he believes part of the legacy of assimilation. The Indian Child Welfare Act, he said, was an attempt at “corrective action” to prevent further harmful policies.

“The protection of our children is our greatest responsibility now,” he told lawmakers.

Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, said he grew up with a Native American brother and it was “difficult circumstances” for him. He said he supports the bill to keep Indigenous kids with their tribes.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called the legislation “critical.” She added: “I think the state of Utah needs to take this leap.”

Steele said Utah hasn’t always been fair or kind to the Native people who were on this land first. But this measure, he said, is a positive step forward to ensure “our most precious resource” is safe.

Benally, who is Navajo, talked about her own experience adopting two Navajo kids. Now, she travels through the state, supporting Native foster parents and trying to get more from all of the sovereign tribes here to take in kids in need of a home.