BAR HARBOR, Maine — The organizers of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission hope the work they have done uncovering the stories of tribal members who were involved with the child welfare system will inspire other states to tackle such an undertaking.
“One of our dreams would be if this work spread out to other states and helped other state child welfare agencies resolve what is going on with them,” Martha Proulx, a manager at the Office of Child and Family Services, told the social services committee of United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., an association of tribes that is holding its semiannual board meeting in Bar Harbor this week.
Proulx was one of several representatives from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Maine-Wabanaki REACH, the organization that established the commission, who talked to the committee about their work on Monday afternoon.
The mission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to understand the trauma suffered by members of the Wabanaki tribes who were taken from their families by the state and put into foster care or boarding schools over the course of more than a century.
In 2013, a committee of five commissioners was sworn in and given the task of gathering testimony from tribal families and welfare workers in order to establish a more complete history of the events and create a set of recommendations for how to improve child welfare services and avoid such events in the future.
“We’re about trying to make visible truths that have been held inside, in some ways, as secrets,” Carol Wishcamper, one of the five commissioners, told the social services committee on Monday.
“Telling the truth, in our minds, will lead to the healing,” she said. “And that healing, hopefully, will bring change.”
Wishcamper said those working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to gather statements have acquired about 40 testimonies from members of the Wabanaki tribes — the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Micmac, the Maliseet and the Passamaquoddy tribes in Pleasant Point and Indian Township.
The commissioners visited all the Wabanaki communities to introduce themselves and hold talking circles, Wishcamper said. They’ve met with about 110 people in these settings.
Community members who attend are invited to give statements publicly, or they also may speak to a single commissioner with a trained statement gatherer present, said Rachel George, the commission’s research coordinator. The statements are recorded on an iPad and archived with the participant’s permission.
Those who choose to participate are given full control of the statement, George said. They can edit, revise or completely withdraw their statements if they prefer.
The presence of a commissioner during the statement gathering is important to the process, George said.
“They want to tell [their story] to somebody who is an authority figure,” George said. “So many people have been told that that never happened, or ‘I don’t believe you.’”
The commission’s entire budget comes from fundraising efforts, Wishcamper said. Jointly, the commission and Maine-Wabanaki REACH have a budget of about $800,000.
Starting in late June, the commission will turn its attention to Mainers who are or were involved with child welfare services and are not members of a tribe.
George said they hope to hear from foster and adoptive families, Department of Health and Human Services personnel, individuals who provide counseling, lawyers and police officers.
Truth and reconciliation commissions exist worldwide to provide survivors of traumatic events the opportunity to heal. A commission was convened in South Africa after apartheid and another was created in Canada to address that country’s use of boarding schools for First Nations children.
Maine’s panel is unique because both the victims and the perpetrators have been involved from its inception, according to Proulx, who works with Maine-Wabanaki-REACH.
Maria Girouard, the Penobscot community organizer, said this work goes beyond talking about child welfare services.
“The work of the TRC has really enabled the community to start talking about healing,” she said. “To start recognizing the many, many hurts that we have.”