North Star Journey

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe seeks to increase number of foster families

Sign marks borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.
A newly posted sign along southbound Minnesota Highway 169 marks the borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation as established in an 1855 treaty.
Courtesy of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

Five years ago, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had more than 70 licensed foster homes. 

Today, that number has fallen to about 40. Most are already caring for children, or are licensed only to care for relatives.

That means some kids are being sent to non-Native foster homes or facilities outside the community – a problem rooted in historical trauma, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said during her annual State of the Band speech in January.

“For our oldest generation of band members living today, there were boarding schools that stripped our children of their culture, identity and caused generational trauma,” Benjamin said. “Today, our youngest generation face a similar loss of culture when they are sent to foster homes outside of the band.”

The need for foster families comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide on a challenge to a federal law that aims to keep Native children within their community and culture. 

Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, in 1978 as a response to what was called a crisis of Native children being removed from their families by social service agencies. 

ICWA’s goal was to help keep Native children in tribal communities. As tribes began exercising their sovereign rights, it became important that Native children were raised within tribal communities, said Samuel Moose, the Mille Lacs Band's commissioner of administration.

“Indian children are one of our most sacred assets,” he said. “We felt that it's necessary to protect them to make sure they grew up in an identity that is theirs, so that they understand where they come from.”

Cultural ties important

Tribal leaders say ICWA has been largely successful. Minnesota lawmakers also recently voted to strengthen state protections for Native children.

But the laws only work if there are homes willing to take them, Benjamin said. She's launched an effort to encourage more Mille Lacs Band families to consider fostering children, and sharing cultural ties she says are important for them to thrive.

“Our elders tell us, we were placed on this earth as Anishinaabe, and so we have all these responsibilities that come with us from a cultural, a religious, a traditional way of life,” Benjamin said.

When kids are removed from that environment, they don't get the kind of nurturing necessary for their self esteem and growth, “for all of the things they need to move forward in life in a positive way,” she said.

‘Walk in both worlds’

A person poses for a portrait
Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Courtesy of the Mille Lacs Band

Mille Lacs County has one of the highest rates of children placed outside the home in Minnesota, most often due to drug abuse by parents, according to a 2020 report by the Department of Human Services. Native children make up the largest racial group by far.

Benjamin said the Mille Lacs Band has struggled with a rise in drug addiction, in part due to a law enforcement dispute with Mille Lacs County that she says created an opportunity for drug dealers.

“When you get hooked, a lot of things happen,” she said. “You lose your job, you may lose your home. And ultimately, if you lose your home, you lose your kids as well.”

As a result, some Mille Lacs Band members have stepped up to care for other family members' children. 

Christine Pewaush has raised her grandson since he was an infant, because of his parents' drug abuse. He's now 8.

“I didn't want him being bounced around from foster home to foster home, (not knowing) where he's at,” she said. “That's the greatest fear for us.”

It was important to Pewaush that her grandson grow up in her large family, learning their traditions and culture.

“As Anishinaabe people, we have to learn how to walk in both worlds – one that's not ours, but we had to adapt to it,” she said. “And one that is ours, our traditional ways.”

Foster homes needed

Social workers look first to extended family members to take in a foster child, but they're not always available. Tribal leaders hope other Mille Lacs Band members will consider opening their homes to a child who's not a relative.

“We're really kind of pushing and promoting folks to step up and to apply for their foster care license, ask questions, and we'll walk them through that step,” said Nicole Anderson, the band's health and human services commissioner.

Anderson said they're trying to eliminate barriers that might keep families from applying for a foster license. That includes a distrust of government that's common in Native communities, she said.

“Sometimes it can be kind of a scary thing saying, ‘OK, I'm going to go to family services and ask questions,’” Anderson said. “So it's breaking down the stigma and the fear, and just really kind of coming together so that we can support each other.”

Preserving families

A person poses for a portrait
Christine Pewaush, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, has raised her 8-year-old grandson since he was an infant.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The Mille Lacs Band's larger goal is to help keep families healthy and intact, reducing the need for foster care. The band has created programs to provide support, reduce poverty and treat addiction. 

One example is the Family Healing to Wellness Court, an alternative to the child protection court system that's grounded in traditional beliefs. Instead of stigmatizing families, the goal is to provide tools they need to be successful, Anderson said.

"We're wrapping around that family,” she said. “We're throwing all the resources at them that we can, and we're walking them through every step of the way.”

Still, at least in the short term, the need for more foster families remains. So far, Benjamin’s urging has not led to an increase in foster care applications.

Right now, Pewaush is concentrating on raising her grandson. But she said in the future, she’d consider taking in another child who's not as fortunate.

“Like we say, it doesn't take just us two parents to take care of the child,” Pewaush said. “It does take the whole tribe to take care of a child.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.