Iowa Indian communities march in memory of children lost in foster care

More than 20 years ago, her four children were taken away from her by Amanda Bearshield Palacios.

When the Santee Sioux woman was struggling with drug use, social services removed her children from her Sioux City home. She entered addiction treatment and was still in it when her parental rights were revoked.

“It hurt,” she said. “It made me feel like, ‘Who are they telling me I can’t be a mother to my own kids?'”

A 1978 federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, should have ensured that Palacios’ children were placed with local relatives. But its enforcement was not guaranteed. In 2002, according to a report by the Des Moines Register.

Inequality prompted Indigenous communities in western Iowa to gather the day before Thanksgiving for a march in memory of Indigenous children lost to the foster care system. On Wednesday, the annual memorial march honoring lost children celebrates its 20th anniversary and all the strides made to address the enforced separation of local families that still persists today.

According to a newspaper clipping from the Des Moines Register,

In November 2003, the Des Moines Register reported on the first march.

It started as a protest

It was the grandmothers in the local community who first demanded answers.

In 1997, Hannah Thomas, an Aboriginal child, died of Shaken Baby Syndrome at the hands of her foster parents. Local relatives in Sioux City had fought for custody of her but lost.

Carol Bearshield, Palacios’ mother, faced the same problem while campaigning for her grandchildren. The spread of the problem and the tragedy of Thomas’ death prompted a meeting among parishioners.

Carol Bearshield sits on a patterned sofa and smiles

Carol Bearshield attempted to take in her daughter’s children when Palacio’s parental rights were terminated. But she was denied custody.

“We sat there and thought, ‘Well, the only way we can do something is if we protest and so we decided we were going to do that,'” Bearshield said.

So in 2003 they took to the streets and marched from South Sioux City, Nebraska to the Department of Human Services building in downtown Sioux City.

Terry Medina, a Native American advocate who took part in the first march, said this year has been intense. Demonstrators carried placards and chanted in frustration. He said the community feels ignored and disrespected.

“It took the native community nearly to declare war on DHS and social workers. They had no connection with the children at the time,” he said. “So that was an educational moment for everyone.”

find healing

Since then, the atmosphere around the march has shifted to how community can heal, Medina said.

At last year’s march, Native Americans from the Winnebago, Santee Sioux and Omaha tribes gathered to pray for lost children, their voices rising above the steady beat of drums.

They also took the time to remember the march’s original organizers, Frank LaMere and Judy Yellowbank.

“Who are you to tell me I cannot be a mother to my own children?”

Amanda Bearshield Palacios

“I’m really grateful for Frank LaMere and Judy Yellowbank and all those who stood up against white people and the courts,” said a protester who was able to regain custody of his grandchildren after losing them. “When everyone stepped down, they all took that step forward.”

Both LaMere and Yellowbank endured but played critical roles in the pursuit of progress.

It was their efforts that led to Iowa incorporating ICWA into its state code in 2003 and the creation of a team of Native Liaisons known as the “Native Unit” added to DHS. They founded the Community Initiatives for Native Children and Families (CINCF), a monthly collaboration between state agency officials and the indigenous community that continues to this day.

Since Frank LaMere’s death, his son Manape LaMere has taken the reins and is now leading the march. He said his father’s legacy lives on in the continued talks about change.

“My dad always talked about getting a seat at the table,” he said. “Well, in that case, he built his own table for them to come to.”

Still a crisis today

Despite the progress, the disproportionate number of natives in the system has not gone away.

That year, Native Americans accounted for nearly a third of Woodbury County’s child welfare cases, despite making up just 3% of the population.

Tom Bouska, who heads the West Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, said a long history of racial discrimination has pushed native communities into circles of poverty fueling the crisis.

“As Frank would say, we have achieved this position with over 400 years of dedication, it will take time to resolve all these issues,” he said. “It’s not just a child welfare issue.”

But in two decades, Bouska said, better practices will prevail. Just this year, Iowa had its first customary tribal adoption, in which states and tribes work together to find a foster home for a child without affecting the birth parents’ rights.

“We really tried to find every kind of alternative there, and that’s why I think Iowa is sort of like a leader in the Midwest,” he said.

John Bigeagle Jr. stands with his children outside the Sioux City Urban Native Center during the march.  He said he fought to get his children back from the foster care system.

John Bigeagle Jr. stands with his children outside the Sioux City Urban Native Center during the march. He said he fought to get his children back from the foster care system.

Urban Indian Connections’ Val Uken said working together in the community has led to significant changes. But the community must continue to fill the gap in resources.

“We have to be consistent,” said Uken. “Tribal peoples see a lot of things as short-lived and that’s one thing we’re trying to change.”

A lasting effect

Local families, like those of Palacios, are still healing from the scars of distrust.

Palacios’ children are now grown, and she has reconnected with them and even re-adopted one of their sons after he was mistreated by his adoptive parents.

But she said time apart still hurts their ability to connect.

“They have war stories of me as a mother going on without them in my life,” Palacios said. “Can you imagine your first everything? Or what if they were sick and just needed a hug and were held and said, ‘I love you.’”

She couldn’t be there, but she could march for them. She said that’s how she shows her love.