BANGOR, Maine — The scope of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work to expose what happened to tribal children who were placed in the state child welfare system will broaden this month.
In late June, organizers will begin interviewing non-tribal people who worked in the state’s child welfare system and came into contact with Wabanaki children. Wabanaki refers collectively to the four remaining Native American tribes in Maine: the Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac and Passamaquoddy.
“I think that the non-Wabanaki community has information about how they made decisions and how those decisions came about,” said Barbara Kates, a community organizer with the education and advocacy group, Maine-Wabanaki REACH.
“The long-term goal is healing overall and change in the communities,” she said. “We non-Wabanaki have a role to play in that.”
Since February 2013 when they were sworn in, five commissioners have been working with Maine-Wabanaki REACH to uncover and acknowledge the trauma suffered by families because of practices that brought Wabanaki children into the welfare system at disproportionate rates over many years. About 40 statements from tribal members have been gathered so far.
Now, organizers are reaching out to Department of Health and Human Services workers, police officers, lawyers, judges and foster and adoptive parents who worked with Wabanaki people.
The practice of taking Native American children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools or foster care became systematic in the late 1800s with the formation of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which sought to stamp out the languages and cultural practices of native people, according to documents from Dickinson University’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School Digital Resources Center.
At least 52 children from Maine were enrolled at the school over the course of several decades, according to Maine-Wabanaki REACH documents. The total number of children taken from their homes is unknown, according to staff.
Children were removed from their families’ care well into the 20th century, even after Carlisle and other boarding schools were closed, Esther Attean, co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, said.
As late as 1999, a review by the federal government showed that Maine was not in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, a law that intended “to protect the best interests of Indian children” by involving tribal members in the cases of children from their own communities, according to Martha Proulx, a manager at the Office of Child and Family Services.
“The foster care and child welfare system kind of picked up where the boarding schools left off,” said Attean, who was a family support specialist for the Penobscot Nation at the time.
Throughout the following decade, a coalition of representatives from DHHS and the tribes in Maine worked together to train state caseworkers in the law and its intentions.
Though a 2012 review created by this coalition showed that state caseworkers were doing a better job involving tribal members in child welfare cases, the report noted that “more progress needs to be made for this to be a true collaborative.”
“It really came down to people were sort of coming up against an invisible wall,” Proulx told the social services committee of United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. at a meeting last week.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is, in part, a tool that attempts to begin breaking down that wall.
“We’ve got a big wound,” said Attean. “We’re just cutting it open a little … We’re hoping that if we start opening that wound enough, that healing will keep happening.”
Community organizers will interview non-Wabanaki members in Bangor on June 26 and 27 and in Augusta on July 17 and 18. People can arrange to participate at other times if those dates and locations don’t work for them.
Kates said organizers have been spreading the word through email and Facebook and by making phone calls. About 25 people have agreed to participate so far.
“I make sure they know this isn’t about laying blame,” Kates said of her conversations with potential participants. She said it’s an attempt to “welcome people to this opportunity for healing and change.”
Community organizers working with Maine-Wabanaki REACH have also begun an effort to bring information about what happened to Wabanaki children to the general public by hosting information sessions across the state.
At one such meeting at the Bangor Public Library in May, Arla Patch, the Maine-Wabanaki REACH community engagement coordinator, presented to more than 30 people from the region.
“It can bring up guilt and sadness and it can definitely bring up shame,” she said when she was introducing the presentation. “Emotions can be brought up and they need to be turned into fuel and that fuel drives action.”
To participate in the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s efforts or to find out more, contact Barbara Kates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 944-9593.