A petition signed by more than 300 Band members, a rally at the Government Center on June 7, hundreds of Facebook statements, and solidarity from Mille Lacs Band elected officials resulted in action last month on an issue of great concern: foster care for the youngest and most vulnerable Anishinaabeg — our children.
The issue arose after a Tribal Court judge granted guardianship of the daughter of a Mille Lacs Band member to an aunt in Florida she barely knew instead of to the Mille Lacs Band relatives she’d spent her life with.
With one day’s notice, the young girl was taken from her foster home and flown to Florida without the opportunity to say goodbye to family and friends, according to her mother and grandmother.
Fortunately, the child was returned to Mille Lacs on June 10.
The young girl has spent her entire life in Minnesota and has attended Wewinabi Early Education in District I. Until the removal, she had been living with relatives at Mille Lacs while her mother worked to meet conditions for reunification. The child’s father lives in Minnesota, but he has had little contact with his daughter over the last two years.
Family and community members sprang into action as the events unfolded.
On June 1, a petition circulating on Facebook and around the Districts was signed by hundreds of Band members and allies. The petition read as follows:
*Aaniindi Gidabinoojiinhyiminaanig (Where are all our children). We, the undersigned Mille Lacs Band Community Members, demand the Band Government to find out “Where are all our children.”
Our children are SACRED to us! Our children are our FUTURE!
The last child welfare review was done in the late 1980s under the leadership of Wewinabi (Art Gahbow) when he said “I want to know where all our Mille Lacs Band children are”. (Where are they placed, who has them, are they with their families?)
In the past the counties were taking our children today it is the Tribal Court and Tribal Family Services.
Stop the legal kidnapping of [name removed to maintain confidentiality] and all the other Mille Lacs Band children that are being taken from their families, extended kin, culture and traditions. *
In response to the controversy and expressions of concern on Facebook, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said, “Our children are sacred. It is our cultural responsibility to take care of our children and our statutory responsibility as a Band government to protect our children. Like most tribes in the country, the out-of-home placement of our children has rapidly increased due to parents being incapable of caring for their children. However, when parents have made real and positive changes to their lives toward the goal of being reunited with their children, as a government we should be supporting the eventual reunification of families. Therefore, under my authority of Executive Inquiry in Band Statutes, I have ordered an immediate investigation of Band processes and programs involved with decision-making for out-of-home placement. A hearing officer with subpoena power will be conducting the investigation.”
On June 5, Melanie signed an Executive Order providing for an Executive Inquiry into the Band’s Department of Health and Human Services, in particular the Family Services office. In addition, the Inquiry will look at all aspects of the child placement process, including the roles of Band attorneys and the Tribal Court.
The Chief Executive ordered hearings into the current child placement system and the appointment of guardians, followed by recommendations for policies, procedures, and further steps for improving the operations and oversight of the placement of children.
The Chief Executive appointed the Jacobson Law Group — and specifically its attorneys Susan Allen and Joe Halloran — as hearing examiners who are experts on the subject of child placement and impartial third parties with no stake in the out- come of the investigation. Band officials will wait to comment until after the Executive Inquiry is completed.
As supporters rallied at the Government Center on June 7, the child’s mother testified before the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the Mille Lacs Band government. Melanie came out to greet the protesters and share copies of the Executive Order she had signed.
Later that day, Band Assembly approved the Chief Executive’s contract for an Executive Inquiry (see below) and made it clear that they were listening to the concerns of the community and would do all in their power to respond to the situation and others like it.
The Executive Order approved by Band Assembly reads in part as follows (for the complete order, see millelacsband.com):
WHEREAS, recent events have raised concerns among many persons and elected leaders of the Mille Lacs Band regarding the conduct and oversight of the placement of children; and
WHEREAS, the Chief Executive has determined that, in or- der to proceed in a prudent manner, it is proper and necessary to conduct hearings into the current child placement system and the appointment of guardians and to develop recommendations for policies, procedures and further steps for improving the operations and oversight of the placement of children; and
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ORDERED:
The Jacobson Law Group and its attorneys Susan Allen and Joe Halloran are appointed as a hearing officer pursuant to 4 MLSBA 13 for the purpose of investigating the Mille Lacs Band Health and Human Services Depart- ment, and related institutions on the matters of child placements and the appointment of guardians;
The hearing officer is hereby granted subpoena power to gather information and command the attendance and testimony of individuals in connection with its investigation and hearings contemplated by Sections 12 and 13; and
The Jacobson Law Group shall conduct any hearings in this matter consistent with the guidelines and principles set forth in the Band Statutes, including particularly 4 MLSBA 12, 13, and 14.
Dated: This 5th Day of June, 2018 Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive
Photo: A rally was held at the Government Center on June 7 to call for government action on foster care.