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Abigail’s Story

line As told by Stephanie and Jason Helmholz (Abigail’s Adoptive Parents)
July 11, 2012
Coalition ICWA Teach-In on Capitol Hill

Abigail with her birth mother

At first we wanted to tell you our story from our perspective but we think it’s important you hear the perspective of the birth mother as well. So what you are about to hear is a combined account of our experience. First let me tell you a little about Sarah, the birth mother in this case. She is a strong, determined woman that would stop at nothing to make sure her daughter’s best interests were upheld. We stood beside her and fought the injustices that were made against her and her daughter.

You will hear that Abigail was born to a Caucasian mother and a Native American father. They were never married and never lived together. The father never supported the mother financially or emotionally. Furthermore, he was not named on the birth certificate and he never made attempts to file paternity. Moreover, he didn’t meet the criteria of a “parent” under his own Tribal codes nor did he meet the criteria of a parent under Idaho statues or the criteria of ICWA because he was an unwed father.

Yet even though he was never proven to be the father, legally or otherwise, he was able to approve of the adoption and then change his mind numerous times. Because of his heritage he was able to enact ICWA on his behalf. You will hear how ICWA took Sarah’s rights to choose the best interest of her child away from her. You will learn that ICWA wasn’t going to be satisfied unless she followed their parameters and rules. In a sense they were putting Sarah up against the wall saying you either choose to raise your child or we will put her in a foster home until we find a fit home.(based on their standard of fit). ICWA ultimately superseded Sarah’s rights. You will also learn that we wanted an open adoption with the mother, father and extended families.

We believed that this was a good compromise because it not only fulfilled the purposes of ICWA but it also fulfilled the wishes of the mother and father (when he was on board). The tribe didn’t want to consider this though. I would like to add that there is nothing in ICWA that precludes an open adoption. An open adoption can advance those purposes when an Indian child cannot remain with his or her parents or Indian custodians. For an Indian child who is adopted by non-Indians, an open adoption is a way to address some of the concerns of the child’s Indian tribe and extended family that the child may be separated from his or her Indian culture.

Lastly you will hear how we kept Abigail secure by not moving her from the only family she knew after having lost our first attempt in court. We are not experts on attachment issues but we did adopt a six year old that has a mild case of reactive attachment disorder. She was moved from home to home in her young life. We, with the help of a counselor, are helping her to overcome her trust issues among other things. This has put her behind her peers. We need to protect our children and keep these young lives in secure bonds to ensure the best possible emotional and physical outcome whenever possible.

Now here is our story, as told from the birthmother’s perspective:

My name is Sarah and I am the birth mother of Abigail. I love this little girl very much and from the moment I knew she existed, I wanted the very best for her. I always will. I was unmarried and 19 years old when I found out I was pregnant after dating Greg a couple months. At that time, I knew that I did not have the means to take care of her and my decision, almost immediately, was to give her a home with someone I knew could give her everything that I could not. Her birth father agreed to back me up on my decision 100%.

When I was three months pregnant, I found an adoption agency that agreed to help me find a good home for my baby. I wasn’t prepared for the drawn out struggle ahead of me. Because of my daughter’s Native American heritage it meant that we had to notify the tribe. This meant that, before finding a home, I had to abide by ICWA standards. I was told that I must make a sincere effort to find a home within the Native American Indian tribes in order to protect the rights of the Native Americans to their children.

In order to abide by this rule I was given thorough instruction on how to follow the ICWA guidelines. She introduced, to me, several Native American families who had been marked eligible for adopting children according to adoption agencies in the Native American Indian tribe. There were a couple of people who stood out as possible families, but after two or three meetings, I decided they were not a good match for my baby. The other eligible families seemed inappropriate as far as adoption went in general. Even though I cannot remember these families in detail, there was the matter of one family who stood out to me, being shockingly unfitting for the adoption of children. This family’s home seemed small and in need of repair, the family was already financially struggling with two children and explained that they did have financial debts. The sole provider of the home was in between jobs. After further inquiry, we learned that they had more than one maxed out credit card and more bills than they could pay. The family seemed nice enough, but not at all stable to provide what another child needs in addition to two of their own.

I found this “eligible” family to be unsuitable for my baby. I wouldn’t put her in that kind of environment. It shocked me that the Native American adoption agencies would call this family eligible. Looking back, I feel that it was more of a desperate act to keep an Indian child within the confines of the Indian tribe rather than find my baby a good, stable home that would be in her best interests.

After looking through the families of the Native American tribes surrounding Kootenai County, I found that none of them fit the profile I was looking for. So I moved on to inquiring about a family I had met through my church. Stephanie and Jason Helmholz and their foster daughter Savannah, had captured my interest as they fit every quality I wanted in a family for my baby. After a few meetings with them, I decided that they were the perfect fit for my baby and I asked them to adopt her. They said yes.

It was good that I found Stephanie and Jason when I had, because I spent nearly all of my pregnancy (9 months) trying to find the perfect home for her. Abby wasn’t some child that I didn’t want and was giving away. She was (and is) someone I love very much so finding her the perfect family was crucial. Finding Stephanie and Jason was a miracle.

On August 10, 2009, I gave birth to my baby. She was born perfectly healthy and beautiful. I had the blessing of being with her for two days before she went to go home with her soon to be parents. I remember watching her go and she looked me in the eye… It was the most heart breaking experience of my life.

After a 20-day waiting period, Stephanie and Jason moved forward with the adoption with the blessing of the tribe. The tribal social worker said that they were a fit home and went on to say that Abigail can be raised by a non-Indian home. She did ask that they didn’t deny her the right to know her heritage. But some unexpected trials started at this point. We thought Greg was initially on board with the adoption but he changed his mind. This enacted ICWA. Abigail was three months old at this time. Both of our parental rights were already terminated and we were going to court to finalize the adoption when we learned this. We were able to terminate Greg’s rights after he hadn’t responded to being served. This is a good time to mention that Greg was not on the birth certificate and he hadn’t filed paternity. He never financially or emotionally supported me before, during or after the pregnancy. He had abandoned me and our unborn child when we needed him most. That day before we entered the courts the attorney advised Jason and Stephanie to return our rights and stop fighting. He advised that if they went forward that the tribe would be taking Abigail and would place her into a foster home that day. We had no choice but to reinstate our parental rights in order to protect Abigail. They basically were saying that I needed to raise my child or they would put her in a foster home to find her a Native family that they felt was suitable.

At this point we ceased the adoption but we attempted to sway Greg, his family and the Nez Pierce Indian tribe to follow through with the adoption in a second try. Abigail continued to live with Jason and Stephanie. Greg, his family and the tribe were aware of the living arrangements. After a meeting with Greg and the family to explain to them why this adoption was in Abigail’s best interest Greg and his family agreed to the adoption. We hired a new attorney in preparation to move forward on the case. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until early January 2011. Abigail now was 17 months old. After repeated calls to Greg and his family with no response, we finally got word back from Greg that he had changed his mind, yet again, he decided to parent. Again, I will mention that he still hadn’t made an effort to file paternity. What’s more disturbing is that during this time Jason and Stephanie on numerous occasions invited Greg and the family to visit Abigail, they never came. Jason and Stephanie wanted them to develop a relationship with Greg and his family through an open adoption. Just as they have done with me and my family. They went as far as showing up for a Pow Wow excited that Greg’s mother was making a special dress for Abigail. Nobody showed up. When Stephanie called them they said they decided not to go.

Our attorney was retiring and with the turn of events we were forced to hire a new attorney. We also hired an attorney that is an expert on ICWA law to advise our attorney here in Idaho.

At this point, Abigail was nearing two years old and had only known Stephanie and Jason as her parents for the duration of her entire life. This is important to make note that Abigail’s stability and attachment with Stephanie and Jason became a primary factor in the adoption case. Hovering threats from Greg and the Indian tribe to tear Abigail from everything she knew causing lasting attachment issues and heartache became a great fear in us.

After considerable delay and procrastination from Greg and the Nez Pierce tribe, we tried again and in the second round, we finally won. With the combined forces of our attorneys, we proved that Greg had never been legally determined the father because his name had never been recorded on the birth records and even though he had so much time to claim parental rights, he never did. And I might mention that even though Greg was given an attorney in the first case and second case he never showed up to the attorney’s appointments, leaving his attorney no choice but to excuse herself from the case. I might add that we sent him letters stating that he could represent himself or hire another attorney but he did neither. In fact, he never stepped foot in the courtroom on any occasion. In addition to this, he also never provided any form of a father-like role according to legal, financial, or logical definition. It finally came down to fighting the tribe for Abigail’s best interests (rather than Greg for parental rights). The fight against the Nez Pierce Indian tribe was painful and costly and we might have lost Abigail if it weren’t for finding proof that she wasn’t even eligible to be counted a child under ICWA law. Stephanie and Jason steadfastly fought with me for Abigail’s future and we won the battle, but it was long and hard. On October 17, 2011, the adoption was finalized.

As far as that little girl is concerned, Stephanie and Jason are the only parents she has ever known. We made sure she was never moved in order to insure stability in her life. She is blessed with a stable home and a family who loves her. My family and I even have the privilege of seeing her several times a year. She is a very happy, healthy, intelligent little girl and she loves her parents and sister so much.

Abigail’s Day of Celebration Despite ICWA

The Indian Tribe wanted to take her from her adoptive family to keep her within blood line relations. Despite my wishes as her birth mother, the tribe decided that it was okay to overrule my decision. I was basically told that I either had to raise Abigail myself (which I knew was not the best option for her) or the Indian tribe would take her, put her into foster care and find someone within the tribe to raise her (which was obviously not the best course of action for her either). I don’t feel that the tribe always has the family and child’s best interests at heart for the reason that Stephanie, Jason and I seemed to be under constant stress and threat of separation from Abigail despite the fact that the Helmholz family is a perfectly respectable, loving and caring family and the fact that Abigail had become fully attached to them. I felt like my rights as the mother were over shadowed by the tribe.

I believe that there have been many cases in which the Native American tribes have manipulated the ICWA law and abused the power they’ve been given. Their primary goal seems to maintain blood relations in the tribe and not, so much, to look out for the child’s and the family’s best interests.

If there is some way to modify or replace ICWA in order to provide more just and equal rights to the parents (adopting and natural) then I think the matter of the placement of a child could be determined based on the best interests of the child and the family rather than maintaining a birthright or bloodline. This seems most morally and logically correct, in my opinion. We are pleading with you to be the voice of change and healing for those who have been mistreated by the rulings of ICWA. Let your deep moral virtues toward these children and their families, be the ruling factor in your decision, not bloodline.

Thank you