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Iowa Native communities march to remember children lost in foster care

A photo of Iowa Native communities participating in the 2021 Memorial March to Honor Lost Children.
Kendall Crawford
The annual Memorial March for Lost Children remembers the Native American children who have been taken from their families and communities and placed in the country's child-welfare system.

More than 20 years ago, Amanda Bearshield Palacios’ four children were taken from her.

When the Santee Sioux woman struggled with drug use, social services removed her kids from her Sioux City home. She began treatment for addiction, and was still undergoing it when her parental rights were terminated.

“It hurt,” she said. “It made me feel like, 'Who are they to tell me I can't be mother to my own children?'”

A 1978 federal law, called theIndian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, should have ensured Palacios’ children were placed with Native relatives. But, its enforcement wasn’t guaranteed. In 2002, Native children were placed in foster care at seven times the rate of their white counterparts, according to a report from theDes Moines Register.

The disparity drove Native communities in western Iowa to come together the day before Thanksgiving to march in memory of the Indigenous children who have been lost to the foster care system. On Wednesday, the annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children will celebrate its 20th year and all the progress made to address the forced separation of Native families that still exists today.

A newspaper clipping from the Des Moines Register reads 'American Indians seek investigation.' A black and white photo of marchers accompanies the text.
Des Moines Register
In November of 2003, the Des Moines Register reported on the first march.

It began as a protest

It was the grandmothers in the Native community who first demanded answers.

In 1997, Hannah Thomas, a Native child, died of Shaken Baby Syndrome at the hands of her foster parents. Native relatives in Sioux City had fought for custody of her, but lost.

Carol Bearshield, Palacios’ mother, faced the same problem when advocating for her grandchildren. The prevalence of the issue and the tragedy of Thomas’ death ignited a meeting among community members.

Carol Bearshield smiles, sitting on a patterned couch
Kendall Crawford
Carol Bearshield tried to take in her daughter's children when Palacio's parental rights were terminated. But, she was denied custody.

“We sat there and we thought, ‘Well, the only way we can do anything is if we protest, and so that's where we decided that's what we were going to do,” Bearshield said.

So, in 2003, they took to the streets, marching from South Sioux City, Nebraska all the way to the Department of Human Services’ building downtown in Sioux City.

Terry Medina, a Native American advocate who attended the first march, said that year was intense. Marchers carried placards and chanted in frustration. He said the community felt ignored and disrespected.

“It took the Native community almost declaring war on DHS and social workers. They weren't connected to the children back then,” he said. “So that was a teachable moment for everybody.”

Finding healing

Since then, the atmosphere around the march has changed, shifting to focus on how the community can heal, Medina said.

At last year’s march, Indigenous people from Winnebago, Santee Sioux and Omaha tribes gathered to pray for the lost children, their voices lifting over the steady drumbeat.

They also took the time to remember the march’s first organizers, Frank LaMere and Judy Yellowbank.

"Who are they to tell me I can't be mother to my own children?”
Amanda Bearshield Palacios

“I’m really thankful for Frank LaMere and Judy Yellowbank and all the ones that stood up against the white people, the courts,” said one marcher, who was able to gain back custody of his grandchildren after losing them. “When everyone stepped back, they all took that step forward.”

Both LaMere and Yellowbank have passed, but played crucial roles in the push for progress.

It was their efforts that led to Iowa adopting ICWA intoits state code in 2003, and to the creation of a team of Native Liaisons, known as the “Native Unit” that has been added to DHS. They formed the Community Iniatives for Native Children and Families (CINCF), a monthly collaboration between state agency officials and the Indigenous community that continues to this day.

Since Frank LaMere’s passing, his son, Manape LaMere, has taken the reins and now leads the march. He said his father’s legacy lives on in the continued conversations around making change.

“My dad was always talking about getting a seat at the table,” he said. “Well, in this instance, he was building his own table for them to come to.”

Still a crisis today

Despite progress, the disproportionate number of Natives in the system has not gone away.

This year, American Indians made up almost a third of child welfare cases in Woodbury County, despite making up just 3% of the population.

Tom Bouska, who leads the Department of Health and Human Services in western Iowa, said a long history of racial discrimination has pushed Native communities into cycles of poverty that fuel the crisis.

“As Frank would say, we got to this position, with over 400 years of involvement, it's going to take some time for us to resolve all of those issues,” he said. “It’s not just a child welfare issue.”

But, in two decades, Bouska said better practices are taking hold. Just this year, Iowa had its first Tribal Customary Adoption, where states and tribes work together to find an adoptive home for a child without terminating the rights of the birth parents.

“We have really strived there to find every kind of alternative, and that's why, in my view, Iowa’s kind of a leader in the Midwest,” he said.

John Bigeagle Jr. stands with his kids outside Sioux City's Urban Native Center during the march. He said he fought to get his kids back from the foster care system.
Kendall Crawford
John Bigeagle Jr. stands with his kids outside Sioux City's Urban Native Center during the march. He said he fought to get his kids back from the foster care system.

Val Uken, with Urban Indian Connections, said community collaborations have led to meaningful change. But, the community needs to continue to close the gap in resources.

“We need to be consistent,” Uken said. “Indigenous people see many things short lived, and that is one thing that we are trying to change."

A lasting impact

Native families, like Palacios’, are still healing from the scars of distrust.

Palacios’ children are grown now, and she has reconnected with them, even adopting one of her sons back after he faced abuse by his adoptive parents.

But, she said the time apart still hurts their ability to connect.

“They have war stories of me as a mother moving on in my life without them,” Palacios said. “Can you imagine their first everything? Or what if they were sick and just needed a hug, and to be held, and told 'I loved you.'”

She wasn’t able to be there, but she was able to march for them. She said that’s how she showed her love.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.