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Panel to Share Findings on Removal of Native Children from Homes

AUGUSTA, Maine - After a two-year investigation, a special panel will share its findings into the systematic removal of native children from their tribal homes. The five-member Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission will also make recommendations to correct past abuses and promote healing.

It's the first time such an effort has been undertaken by Indian nations and a state government. And those involved say the work has been validating at a crucial time in tribal-state relations.

The commission has gathered statements from more than 150 people, including more than 90 Wabanaki tribal elders and former children in foster care. Statements were also taken from non-native foster parents, state caseworkers, attorneys, judges and guardians ad litem. They are being archived as part of a record that will be made public with the permission of participants.

This, says the TRC's Executive Director Charlotte Bacon, is all part of an effort to uncover the truth about what happened over several decades and continues to happen to this day.

"The most critical finding is that native children continue to be removed from their homes at a disproportionate rate through 2014," Bacon says. "It is not at the same rate as it was in, say, 1972, where, in Aroostook County, one in three native children were in care, which is a stunning statistic and represents a gross over-representation of native children in a foster care system."

What's disconcerting, says Bacon, is that the current rate of native children being placed in foster care is still about five times higher than that of non-native children. And this is happening despite education and training of workers in the child welfare system about the need to protect native children and their Wabanaki culture.

Bacon says there's a clear reason for the disparity. "Institutional racism is still playing a part in our state and in our institutions and in the public."

"We've learned a lot through this process - the level of mistrust that tribal people have had for the TRC because it has anything to do with the state," says Esther Attean, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and co-director of Wabanaki REACH, a group that promotes reconciliation, engagement, advocacy, change and healing.

Attean says many tribal people were fearful of reliving traumatic experiences in foster care, of being exploited and having thier experiences made public. But, at the same time, Attean says one of the commission's recommendations is to respect tribal sovereignty, and she says that has been validating.

"To respect tribal sovereignty - just those three words - that is huge. That is huge for us," she says. "But it also brings with it a lot of anxiety. It's really at the heart of tribal-state relations."

Recently, Gov. Paul LePage, who was instrumental in signing onto the Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation process, rescinded a three-year-old executive order he had signed that directed state agencies and departments to develop policies recognizing tribal sovereignty and fostering tribal relations.

The governor said those efforts have quote "proved to be unproductive because the state of Maine’s interests have not been respected." Attean says she was angry at first and then realized that the governor's latest action is meaningless.

"It's like our spirituality: He can't take it away. He can't take sovereignty away. It's not relevant," she says. "But it's sad because it speaks volumes about the attitudes he has towards tribal people - the audacity to think that he can write an executive order that's going to change or impact Wabanaki people."

The TRC began its work in November, 2013, and had 27 months to gather findings, interview people, take statements, write a report and condense that report into draft findings and recommendations that will be shared in a series of meetings with the public.

The final document is expected to contain about 15 items, some quite technical, some quite broad - like the idea that the public has yet to reckon with the true harm of intergenerational trauma endured by Wabanaki people for the past 500 years.

"Our job is not to teach Maine people about what Wabanaki people do and what their traditions are and the things they believe in," says Penthea Burns, a co-director of Maine Wabanaki REACH, "but rather for us to learn about what our collective history has been so that we don't stay silent anymore as white people and Wabanaki people don't stay silent any longer."

The first public forum takes place Thursday, April 30, at 5:30 p.m. at Husson University. A final report and celebration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is planned in June.