July 19, 1996

Blood Ties


AMES, Iowa. If the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 had been law when my husband and I were ready to start our family, we could not have raised our son.

In 1969, we read an article in The New York Times about the need for permanent homes for American Indian children. We had a strong interest in Indian culture, so we specifically requested an Indian baby.

When we learned that the Arizona Department of Public Welfare had approved us for a 4-month-old Apache boy, we checked the circumstances. His mother was 22, unmarried, an alcoholic and had two older children.

We didn't think to ask whether she had an extended family that could raise him.

The Indian Child Welfare Act all but ended adoptions like ours.

Under the law, when an Indian mother relinquishes her child, "in the absence of good cause to the contrary," her extended family receives special preference for adoption, followed by other members of her tribe, then by other Indian groups. If her tribe opposed it, she couldn't relinquish her child to a white family.

State courts, however, have differed in their interpretation of "good cause to the contrary." There have been instances where placing a child in a Caucasian home has been in itself considered "good cause."

Congress is debating whether to weaken or to strengthen the Indian Child Welfare Act. In May, the House passed the Adoption Promotion and Stability Act, intended to make adoption more affordable and to ease all interracial adoptions. Indian rights groups opposed a provision of the bill that would have weakened the Indian Child Welfare Act: the amendment would have limited tribal jurisdiction to those Indian children whose biological parents had significant social, cultural or political ties to the tribe.

In the Senate, the Committee on Indian Affairs scrapped the provision.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain of Arizona introduced a substitute bill, supported by Indian tribes and adoption lawyers, that insures that tribes will be informed when any Indian child is placed for adoption though it limits the time they have to respond.

Though it may sound odd, I'm happy that the Senate version is the one likely to prevail, because my son's recent reunion with his birth family convinces me that its approach is better.

Like many adopted children, Andrew wanted to learn about his origins. Last May, at age 26, he met his birth family for the first time. The photos he brought back from the reservation show a world far different from the quiet Midwestern university town where he was raised: brush-covered hills dotted with ancient saguaro cactus, modest homes whose front yards are filled with worn-out cars, women wearing traditional dresses preparing traditional foods.

Andrew learned that both his parents died years ago in alcohol-related incidents, but he found a brother, grandmother, great-grandmother and dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins. They gave him a welcome-home party and showered him with gifts. He felt comfortable with them. Only the language they usually spoke set him apart. He enrolled in the tribe, is thinking of moving to the reservation and wants to be buried in the cemetery where his birth parents rest.

He learned that his family never wanted his mother to sign him away. He was told that her decision to relinquish two of her three children for placement in non-Indian homes caused such a rift with her family that, while under the influence of alcohol, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and died. The family never stopped searching for the missing children.

Although Andrew grew up happy in our home, the positive change in my son once he touched his roots, and the ease into which he entered the lives of his large family, makes me think that the pull of the ingrained cultural memory is stronger than even the most loving adoptive bonds.

Before lawmakers encourage adoptions of Indian children by non-Indian families, before they remove tribal jurisdiction over child custody proceedings, before state courts interpret "good cause" as economic superiority, they need to acknowledge the strength of the biological and cultural ties that Indian tribes can offer their own children.

Linda Hodges is a food and travel writer.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company