Jonathan Ho wrapped his hands around a warm mug of coffee, then fiddled with his metallic red cell phone. He tried to find the words to describe his childhood.
“You like coffee in the morning?” the 15-year-old Lummi tribal member asked. “It’s just like that, only with me, for a long time, what I wanted was a cup of alcohol.”
There were drugs, too, he said, readily available for a 9-year-old boy neglected by his parents on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham. Ho was living with his uncle then, because his mother couldn’t care for him. But after Ho acted out for a few years, he said, his behavior became too much for his uncle, and, like thousands of American Indian children, he landed in foster care — a system made up mostly of white families.
After about six months bouncing around in temporary homes, Ho was reconnected with his younger brother, now 14, and sister, now 12. They had been placed in the home of Maddy Krygier, an 18-year veteran of foster parenting and a case manager for YouthNet, a Mount Vernon foster licensing agency. Ho, who is half Lummi and half Vietnamese, said he found security in the Krygier home — something he’d never known at Lummi.
Now, six years later, Krygier has legal guardianship of all three children, plus a fourth, a 14-year-old girl.
All four children are American Indian.
Krygier is white.
To some tribal members, that’s a problem.
“I’m the white woman who took the kids away,” Krygier said. “That’s how they see me.”
In Washington state, tribal children are more likely than most other states to end up in state foster care, according to a report released last month by the National Indian Child Welfare Association. They make up 8.4 percent of all children in the state foster care system, even though they number only 2 percent of the total child population. The state ranks sixth in the nation for the largest number of Indian children in foster care and is among the top 10 states with the greatest disproportionality of Indian children in foster care.
Only four of the state’s 26 tribes have an agreement with the state that funnels federal foster support dollars to the tribes, said Connie Bear King, a government affairs associate with Northwest Indian Child Welfare Association. None are in Snohomish County.
“If tribes are able to access the dollars directly, they’ll be given the ability to provide better services, and that would increase the possibility of native foster and adoptive families,” Bear King said.
Without the money, Bear King said, Indian children are more likely to end up in white homes, where they often struggle to fit in.
“They are often told explicitly that they are different, and it creates a conflict for them in terms of their identity,” Bear King said.
That’s when Indian children often face deep trauma, said Lisa Powers, an Everett-based foster licenser for the state Department of Social and Health Services. Powers is a Comanche Indian, and her children are Tulalip.
Indian children placed in white homes are known as “split feathers,” Powers said.
“They’ve been taken out of their community, and they don’t really know who they are,” she said. “It’s very traumatizing for these people. They get into substance abuse, and even suicide as an end result.”
The fear many tribal members feel toward non-Indians who care for tribal children is rooted in an era during which as many as half of the tribal children were taken, either by government officials or church leaders.
“There was a true effort to ‘save’ native children and place them in a white home,” Powers said.
Though some children who were taken were rescued from abuse, many were removed because it was believed that Indian homes were too poor to care for them, Powers said.
In 1978, the federal government passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave tribal leaders a say in custody matters for reservation children. Now, local advisory committees ensure that state agencies don’t remove tribal children from homes without adequate evidence of neglect or abuse, Powers said.
“They’re no longer removed because the housing isn’t fancy,” Powers said.
But even today, for Indian children in abusive families, often the only option is to leave the reservation.
Keira Earhart recites the statistics not in numbers, but in anecdotes. He speaks of tribal children who are on a waiting list for a foster home because their current caregivers — usually relatives — can’t keep them.
Earhart was hired by the Stillaguamish Indian Tribe to recruit foster families for the tribes’ children — a job he says is among the toughest in Indian Country.
The tribe has an agreement with the state that allows it to place children in foster homes. Whenever a Stillaguamish child turns up in state custody, the tribe petitions for jurisdiction, Earhart said. Most of the time, the state hands the child over to be placed by the tribe, but the tribe doesn’t automatically get financial support when it asserts jurisdiction, he said. That means that most families who take children through the tribe don’t get a stipend to help pay for the child’s expenses unless the tribe provides one.
In Indian Country, where the median income still hovers well below the rest of the nation, an extra child is simply too costly for many families.
It’s common for tribal families to care for one another’s children, so a foster care system is viewed by some tribal members as a standardized echo of what’s been happening in Indian Country for generations.
When tribal families become licensed caregivers through the tribe, many of them are already caring for relatives’ children, Earhart said.
Earhart tries to recruit Indian families, but the tribe also licenses non-Indians who agree to work with the tribe to keep the children connected to Stillaguamish culture.
Now, the tribe has only two homes that currently meet the state’s criteria, Earhart said. When those homes are filled, Stillaguamish children are most often placed in relatives’ homes. If Earhart can’t find a relative who has space for another child, the child can end up back in state custody.
New federal laws have made it more difficult to become a state-approved foster parent, Earhart said. The 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protect and Safety Act requires prospective foster parents to submit fingerprints for background checks. Every person living in the home who is over the age of 16 must undergo a background check, and everyone over the age of 18 must submit fingerprints.
“There are just so many hoops,” he said.
Some tribes do whatever they can to keep tribal children on their reservations, even if it means that they live near the parents who abused or neglected them.
The Tulalip Tribes tries to first place every foster child in the home of a tribal-enrolled relative, said Tulalip Tribes General Manager Shelly Lacy. If a relative’s home can’t be found, the tribe looks for a foster family that is willing to bring the child to Tulalip cultural events, she said.
“This is important for children of all races,” she said. “If you live with your same race, then you have the same core values and culture in that home.”
The Lummi Nation places children with other tribal families unless the child is enrolled in another tribe, according to information provided by the tribe. Leslie Rebey, director of the tribes’ child welfare program, did not provide any further information.
“Even kids in a dysfunctional family sometimes will do better if they stay with their families,” said Mary McGauhey, a Marysville foster mom who has cared for Indian children. “When they get away from the reservation, they lose their cultural identity.”
McGauhey said it’s difficult to access tribal services for her foster children, even if they are enrolled in a local tribe, because she is a white woman.
Krygier knows that it’s not ideal for the four Indian children she cares for to live with her instead of an Indian family, but she does what she can to keep them connected to their culture. Krygier has offered to take them to events that are open to the public, but the teens say they’re not interested in attending “a white man’s pow-wow.” They’d rather participate in private longhouse ceremonies, but Krygier doesn’t know when those occur.
When Krygier takes the teens to visit family members on the Lummi reservation, tribal members make disparaging comments.
“When we visit, they tell me, ‘I hate that lady. Why are you even living with her?’” Ho said. “But I just try to ignore it.”