M’s Story – Four Year Old Boy Taken From the Only Family He’d Known Due to ICWA…and the Outcome.

To Whom it May Concern,

My little brother (M.T.S.) became a member of our family in 1988 at nine months old.  My parents had been doing foster care for a few years beforehand and didn’t hesitate to welcome baby M. into our home with loving arms.  He was “floppy” and did not have any muscle tone.  He was unable to sit up and had cradle cap nearly one fourth of an inch thick.  He had a lopsided head (likely from not being held).  According to one of our social workers, his mother (a chronic alcoholic) had consumed a twelve-pack of beer on the day he was born.

M.T.S. certainly was not a healthy baby but it didn’t matter to my family.  We adored him from day one and intended to care for him until it was safe for him to return to his biological parents (as we had with all of the other children we’d fostered).

Several years passed and M did not have any contact with his biological parents or extended family members.  His biological parents had not completed their treatment plans and did not show any intention or desire to have him returned to their care.  There was some concern that M would struggle with fetal alcohol syndrome and he’d already shown some signs of delay but that didn’t matter to my family.  He was part of our family and called us “sisters” and my parents “mommy & daddy”.  We were crazy about him.

I was only 12 when M was placed into our home and naturally, my parents did not share a lot of details with me about the adoption process.  However, when M was three years old, we celebrated the news that M’s parent’s rights had been terminated and that we could finally file for adoption.  I was elated that M would “officially” be my little brother.

As soon as the petition was filed, I sensed that my parents were under intense duress. Something went wrong. A grandmother (who M had never met and we had never known of) petitioned the court for custody of him.

The Chippewa tribe also stepped in to stop the adoption (using the Indian Child Welfare Act) because M’s biological father was one-quarter Native American.  My parents remained positive.  Naturally, the courts would recognize that he had been raised in a warm and loving home for 4 years and placing him with strangers would be emotionally devastating for him and would likely scar him for life.  Even as a teenager I realized that this was simply common sense.  Who in their right mind would ever take a four year old away from the only parents he’d ever known?

M’s guardian ad litem told us (and the court) that he would not be safe if he were placed with his grandmother because she’d made it clear that she’d let him have access to his parents and other family members (many of whom were notorious criminals in the community adjacent to ours).  Surely the judge would listen to M’s court appointed advocate and make the right decision on M’s behalf.  We remained hopeful.

My parents are not wealthy people, and I suspect they spent much of their life savings trying desperately to keep my little brother.  However, they lost (at least twice).

I will never forget the day that my parents told me that M would have to leave our home and live with his grandmother.  In fact, the conversation still haunts me  20+ years later.  There were endless questions.  Would he be safe?  Would we ever see him again?  The thought of losing M was unbearable.

Shortly before the day M was scheduled to be “picked up” I wrote a note to my brother on a tiny piece of paper that I stuffed and re-sewed into the seam of the back of his favorite teddy bear.

It read (from our favorite book)….“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always…as long as you are living my baby (I replaced…brother) you’ll be”. I included our phone number.

I was painfully aware that I may never see my baby brother again.  As a last-ditch effort to protect him, I brought him into my room and showed him how to unstitch the seams and recover the note when he was taken from us. If he needed anything…he should call us.  Did he even know how to dial the telephone?  I quickly taught him how.

From that point on, life was a whirlwind. I was at school when they picked up my little brother. I honestly don’t remember that day, nor do I want to. I just know that my parents protected me from the “details” and I am glad that they did.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned he’d been taken “kicking and screaming” from our home (much like he’d done during the visitations).  As the parent of a seven year old son and eight year old daughter today, I can’t even fathom how much that horrific scene (and their inability to protect M) has haunted my parents.

Mind you, my parents always did their best to ensure that my older sisters and I continued to enjoy a “normal” life. However, I imagine it must have been unimaginably difficult to “play-normal” when their little boy had been ripped from the only home he’d known and placed in a dangerous environment.

M’s grandmother passed away when M was 10 or 11. He was a juvenile delinquent and no one (including the tribe) wanted him anymore. When she was still alive and when M became unruly she thought it would be best to let my family (namely my dad…a male role model) have contact with him (for the very first time in 5 years).

My parents were close to retiring. My sisters and I had all moved on. We had careers and families of our own. However, my parents didn’t hesitate, for a moment, to care for M once again given the strange (yet unbelievable) opportunity. Mind you, they kept the arrangement with his biological family hush-hush.  Heaven forbid the tribe would step in once again and break their hearts.  But the tribe ignored the arrangement. Apparently, he was no longer a valuable member of the tribe.  No one fought for him anymore.  No one seemed to be concerned that a white family was raising an Indian child this time around. He was a troubled kid. He needed special services. He was destructive and expensive.

My parents did not care. He was *their* son. Who was home again, finally.

I would love to say that M’s story was a “happily ever after” one, but unfortunately, I can’t. He played high-school sports. He made a lot of forever-friends. However, he never was the happy-go-lucky M we knew as a baby, toddler and little boy. He was jaded. He had a hard time trusting adults. He struggled in school. He struggled in life. He ran away (often). He used drugs and drank too much.

I am a firm believer that a child learns most of the major life lessons by the age of 5 (compassion, fairness, honesty, etc…) One of the things about M that his counselors (and parole agents) have always told us is that he’s a “good kid” (and we’ve always known that). He’s one of the nicest, most compassionate, most honest. juvenile delinquents / criminals that you’ll ever meet. However, M is troubled and always will be (rightfully so).

Today, M is serving a short prison sentence for vandalism and assault. His bio-family doesn’t visit or write him, but my family does.  We love M unconditionally.

As a teenager, M trusted me with “glimpses” into what life was like for him after he’d been taken from us.  As an overly protective big sister, his secrets will remain in my trust.

When M was taken from our home he was old enough to tell everyone that would listen that he did not want to leave us (and he did…verbally, yet when that didn’t work he resorted to kicking and screaming).  The courts, his biological family and the tribe failed him.  They ignored him.

My family listened to M and fought for him.   Yet when all was said and done, in M’s little mind we also ignored and abandoned him as well.   Today he knows that we did everything in our power to keep him, but I am not confident the psychological damage he endured at the tender age of 4 will ever be healed.  Today M is a deeply troubled young man and yet again, our family is left with uncertainty about his future and safety.  As a young man, he is the only one that is responsible for his choices (and they have been poor ones as of late).

That being said, I am not angry with M.  I am angry that he has emotional scars.  I am angry that his story could have and should have been different.  I am angry that he was abused and it could have been easily prevented. I am angry that the system designed to protect him failed him. I am angry that the appellate court judge was a coward.   I am angry that my parents’ and siblings’ hands are tied once again and there is nothing that we can do to protect him (aside from being a soft place for him to land).

Today, all I can do is be the voice that he never had.  I will start by sharing his story and I will kick and scream (as M did) until someone listens to me.  I will continue to protect my brother (as only a big-sister can) and I will fight to prevent the same outcome for other children who have been (and will become) victims of the misapplication of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

I was inspired to share our story (after 20 years) by the Save Veronica Rose campaign (www.saveveronica.org).  Please take a moment to listen to Veronica’s voice and to demand that the Indian Child Welfare Act be repealed or amended to protect children who’ve become unnecessary victims of the misapplication of it.

With utmost gratitude for taking a moment to listen,


M’s Big Sister

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing M’s story–it brought me to tears that he suffered so much and so unnecessarily.

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