The nation’s first TRC to address child welfare and Native people
Maine Wabanaki TRC horizontal logo

Background

Photo of original TRC Convening Group

Photo courtesy of Seven Eagles Media Productions

In 1978, under pressure from a growing body of evidence and pubic awareness, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Signed into law, ICWA gave formal recognition to a long understood reality: that native families had suffered unjustly under racially biased policies designed to disrupt community, disband traditional family structure and solve “the Indian problem” by assimilating native children into white society.

Among other things, this new law recognized the importance and worth of culture, and created legal protections for that, mandating that native children remain within their communities and granting tribes the status of “third parents” in child welfare cases.

ICWA was an important step forward in protecting the rights of native children, their families and the tribes as a whole. Unfortunately, practice did not immediately fall in with policy. The underlying racial tensions and social biases that had resulted in the need for the law did not disappear overnight. Children continued to be taken and placed with white families, and interactions between tribal communities and state welfare remained tense, filled with anger and mistrust.

Recognizing the dilemma, a dedicated group of individuals representing all the interested parties met to find a solution. Joint trainings were created, ways to fulfill compliance, efforts at cultural competence, all were brought forward with good intent – and yet, things did not seem to be able to move forward.

Seeking a better future, the group continued to meet and engage in difficult – but meaningful – conversation. It was from these discussions that a new understanding arose: before we could go forward, we had to go back. The hurts and wrongs of the past had to be addressed, recognized and understood before a new start was possible. It was decided then to create the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

Quotes

  • I am proud of the work we have done over the years to improve child welfare practice and realize it has only been possible because of the energy we’ve put into developing and strengthening relationships. We hold ourselves and each other accountable, asking tough questions and sharing difficult thoughts, feelings and opinions. Although at first I wasn’t sold on this idea of opening old wounds, I now realize it is necessary to look back at the truth before we can heal and move forward, I am optimistic and hopeful, I know we can do this."
    Molly Newell, Passamaquoddy DHS Director at Sipayik
  • All Convening Group members agreed to bring their values, beliefs, biases and unique life experiences into the process. Many of the tribal members have noted that this work is not just a job – the survival of their community, tribe and culture are all at stake, making it easier for them to involve their whole selves in the work. The Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS) members have had a different experience and, at times, have felt conflicted when what was expected of them as employees contrasted with who they wanted to be in relation to their Convening Group colleagues. At the core of the process are the value of relationships, and the effort of creating and maintaining humanity within those relationships."
    Excerpt, From “Truth, Healing, and Systems Change: The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission Process,” Child Welfare (2013), Vol. 91, No. 3
  • Engaging in the Maine TRC is one way in which people can begin the process of decolonization. The Wabanaki people will be given the chance to heal from the harm inflicted upon them; white Mainers will be able to reconcile their inherited feelings of guilt and recognize their responsibility. Achieving these goals will ultimately challenge the dominant cultural narrative that the Wabanaki people cannot take care of their own children, replacing it with a more accurate narrative that can be incorporated into the ways that Mainers not only understand their history, but plan for their future.”
    Excerpt, From “Truth, Healing, and Systems Change: The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission Process,” Child Welfare (2013), Vol. 91, No. 3