© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Supreme Court upholds ruling on Native American adoptions

J. Scott Applewhite

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to uphold a law that allows for the adoption of Native American children by their relatives and tribes.

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) protects Native American children from being separated from relatives in the adoption process. The law was passed after investigations found that hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their tribes by adoption agencies and placed with non-Native families.

The law was challenged by seven individuals and three states. They claimed that the law was unconstitutional and relied on racial discrimination. However, advocates and many members of the Native American community said repealing the law would infringe on their rights and sovereignty.

The law does not dictate where a Native American child is placed in the adoption process but it provides protection from the child being separated from relatives or their tribe. The court ruled to keep ICWA in place in a 7-2 decision.

Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation

Mitchel Ray knows all too well the importance of that law. Ray is the chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation. In an interview with WSHU, he shared his personal connection to the law and how he feels now that the law has been upheld.

“I feel great! I was honestly quite scared and nervous because I was impacted personally by this and if this were removed the cycle would continue,” Ray said.

Ray grew up never knowing his tribe. He was born into the foster care system and 4 years old when he was adopted into a non-Native home. He had no connection with the tribe for much of his youth. It started a journey that led him to find more information about his family.

“When I came back, not only discovering who I am but finding out as well that my own mother and her brothers and sisters had gone through the foster care system as well,” Ray said.

Ray said although he was born a few years after the federal law was established, his tribe was not recognized by the state at the time. It took him years of searching before he discovered he had ties to the Eastern Pequot Tribe. He wasn’t able to fully reconnect with his people until he was 19 years old.

“There just wasn't enough in place to set that in motion and my tribe wasn't as strong at that time. We were just being again recognized by the state,” Ray said. “There really wasn’t enough time to save myself so to speak.”

Because of that lost time, Ray missed out on growing up with a connection to his culture. He knows several Eastern Pequot tribal members that share a similar story of reconnection. Ray said he is relieved that the law is still in place to protect future generations. He hopes others can avoid the same fate.

Ray said the law not only protects Native American children but further establishes sovereignty rights for each tribe. He said outside agencies should not be stepping in and making decisions that would impact tribal members.

“We should be able to establish what home this child goes to if there is an issue with that child being in a home, they should be placed with another Native American family so that they can stay close to the tribe, stay close to their culture,” Ray added.

Ray hopes that this ruling will deter others from challenging the law again. He wants Connecticut to consider its own set of laws to strengthen protections for Native American children in foster care.

“Native peoples that aren’t recognized but known as such to be Native. Because there are some tribes out there where the numbers are so low but they don't have that protection or they're government isn't as strong,” Ray said. “It should overlap, federal, state for any tribal citizen.”

Jeniece Roman is WSHU's Report for America corps member who writes about Indigenous communities in Southern New England and Long Island, New York.