BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group formed to explore the history of state child welfare practices that separated Wabanaki children from their families, has selected its executive director.
Heather Martin, a College of the Atlantic graduate with a background in community radio, grassroots organizations, civil justice and conflict resolution, took her new post on Monday, according to a commission press release.
“I am deeply honored and excited to join the [commission] in this role,” Martin said in a Tuesday news release. “My children and I have been following the [commission] process since the signing of the Declaration of Intent in May of 2011. I believe in this work, the power of healing and the potential for real social change.”
In the 1990s, Martin worked with Community Health and Counseling Services in Hancock
County working with “families in crisis” who were at risk of losing children because of state welfare intervention. Prior to that, she worked with Bangor Beautiful, an organization tasked with litter cleanup and beautification projects in the Queen City.
More recently, Martin worked for WERU radio station, the American Civil Liberties Union and with Maine Families, where she worked with expecting parents preparing to start families.
Commissioners began their search for an executive director after a February swearing-in ceremony in Hermon. The group will begin traveling the state in the coming months, talking to people affected and involved in the programs. Within 27 months, they will file a report outlining the stories and collaborate with the state to ensure it is operating the best possible welfare system.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the United States government established boarding schools for Native American children who were removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into American culture, according to commission documents.
In the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America created the Indian Adoption Project, which removed Native American children from their families and tribes to be adopted by non-native families or go to schools where they were banned from speaking their native language or practicing tribal customs.
These practices were widespread, according to Esther Altvater Attean of the Muskie School of Public Service. During the nine years of the Indian Adoption Project alone, nearly 400 Native American children from 16 states were sent to foster families. Other, less centralized programs preceded and followed that “concerted” project, she said. Churches and residential schools had programs of their own, which spanned a century and a half.
The commission plans to set up an office in downtown Ellsworth on the second floor of 89 Main St, according to the release.