Jacobs speaks about indigenous child welfare

By Engracia Obregón, NewsNetNebraska.

On Nov. 10, historian Margaret Jacobs spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln about the activism of two women from the U.S. and Australia, who rallied against the trauma of indigenous child removal in their nations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Margaret Jacobs is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The lecture took place at the Bailey Library, in Andrews Hall. The presentation was based on the research from her latest book, “A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World,” which was published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.

Before starting the speech to a packed room, Jacobs clarified that there are no perfect terms to refer to indigenous people, and the words might create confusion. When she used the words “indigenous Americans” she referred to American Indian and Native Americans.

Jacobs’ speech followed the tracks of two activist women: Molly Dyer, in Melbourne, and Maxine Robbins, in Washington D.C. These two women from two different parts of the world fought for the same objective: to stop the removal of American Indian child from their families.

“Molly and Maxine knew and learned from each other,” Jacobs said.

Dyer and Robbins reported how government authorities took thousands of Indian children away from their families assuming that they weren’t capable to raise their children. Jacobs’ statistics showed that in Victoria, Australia, Aboriginal children are 26 times more likely than white children to be fostered or adopted.

Jacobs continued the presentation talking about the Indian Adoption Project. Administered by the Child Welfare League of America and funded by a federal contract from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the Indian Adoption Project lasted from 1958 to 1967. It was established to allow Native children to have a better life. Without evidences of neglect, the children were fostered or adopted to non-Indian homes. Authorities lied to mothers, often saying that the adoption was temporary. One example was the story of a boy taken from his mother and “temporarily” given to another family. After some time, he was told his mother had died and he had to stay with the new family.

Jacobs explained how Robbins and Dyer believed that Indians had the skills to reverse the situation. Both struggled to stop the abuse and trauma Native children were suffering. Dyer wrote a letter to Indian Family Defense, a magazine that supported the Native children rights, denouncing that “children were forced to be adopted.”

In 1977 Dyer visited the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) in New York City, where she met Steven Unger, the editor of the Indian Family Defense. She travelled through the states ending up in Washington D.C., where she met Robbins. Jacobs showed how Dyer and Robbins built a transnational project.

“They believed that empowering adoptions they were giving a brilliant opportunity to the Native families, but Molly and Maxine showed how devastating it was for them,” Jacobs said.

Child removal ended with the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, which allowed the sovereignty of the tribes to decide such matters. Jacobs said there were public discussions and apologies from the governments of Canada and Australia, but the U. S. government never admitted the problem.

After the speech, the public had the chance of making some questions. One person asked if there was any difference between girl and boy adoptions.

“In most of the cases, families preferred to adopt girls rather than boys,” Jacobs answered.

Another person asked if the families were promised anything when their children were removed.

“They used to say it was temporary,” said Jacobs. She gave the example of Jennifer Thomason, a woman who was told by the authorities that they would take care of her child temporarily while she was in the hospital, but it wasn’t true. Fortunately, Molly Dyer helped, and the child was finally given back to his mother.

The colloquium ended with a big applause from a very grateful public.

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