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Christian’s Story

line Christian was 21 months old and had been moved between six different homes before he found his way to the Hofers.┬áBecause of the Indian Child Welfare Act, they had to fight to keep there. The tribe wanted to remove the little boy from a bonded and thriving environment. Christian had finally found that loving, secure and permanent home – yet due to ICWA, the tribe wanted to move him again!

Indian Welfare Act may void adoption
By: Kevin Dodds

Christian (left) at home with his siblings

A 4-year-old boy with an easy smile and a gentle disposition finds himself at the center of a chaotic and mysterious custody battle between his estranged mother and his would-be adoptive parents.

Christian Hofer has lived with Shannon and Bonnie Hofer of Hendricks, Minn., since 2002, when his Native American mother gave the Hofers custody and consented in writing to the couple’s plans to adopt.

But Juanita Good Bird of Sioux Falls never provided officials a family medical history, which is necessary to seal an adoption. Now, for reasons not understood by the Hofers, Good Bird wants her son back. She’s sought a court order to make that happen.

To hear the Hofers’ side is to hear a wrenching tale of two loving parents who took in a 20-month-old boy who’d been bounced around from home to home. The Hofers – he works at Precision Computers in Sioux Falls, she’s a stay-at-home mom of three – learned of Christian’s plight through their church. They’ve spent the past two years raising him as their own.

Giving him up now would mean tearing apart a family, they say.

“When she called – and this is two years later – and said she wanted him back, I cried out loud. Christian doesn’t even know her anymore,” Bonnie Hofer said of Good Bird. “Dealing with this, it’s been an absolute nightmare.”

Good Bird sees it differently.

She says that, during the long term, the boy will be better off with his biological mother. She is using the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 to regain custody.

The law states that if a parent of an Indian child wants to surrender custody voluntarily, she must do so before a judge. Good Bird and the Hofers signed papers before a notary but not a judge.

Because of that, a Lincoln County, Minn., judge ruled this month that the Hofers don’t have grounds to keep Christian. He should go back to Good Bird, the judge said.

The Indian Child Welfare Act is aimed at ensuring that Native American children are placed with relatives first, then with other tribal members and, failing that, with members of other tribes before prospective guardians who are of other races. It’s rooted in the thinking that Indian children need to be a part of and understand Native culture.

The Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, of which Christian Hofer is eligible to become a member, is supporting Good Bird’s efforts for that reason.

Legal misstep

Good Bird could not be reached at her Sioux Falls home this week. But Jacqueline Beaulieu, a lawyer representing Good Bird, said her client now thinks that she will be the best parent for her son.

Beaulieu, a lawyer with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis, did not explain further, but she did say that the law is on Good Bird’s side.

Frank Pommersheim, a University of South Dakota law professor who specializes in Indian law, agreed. He said cases such as the Hofers’ are rare because the welfare act is explicit.

“If you ask anybody who is familiar with the act, they will tell you voluntarily consenting” to give up custody “has to be executed before a judge,” he said. “That’s clear.”

The lawyer the Hofers hired to handle the consent process overlooked that important step.

The Hofers now are working with a different lawyer to appeal the judge’s decision. On Jan. 14, the judge gave them 30 days to appeal. Fifteen days after that deadline is up, Christian is to be returned to Good Bird.

The Hofers’ hope is to convince a judge that uprooting a child from the only family he’s ever really known would deeply scar him and stunt his development, and the need to prevent that should override the legal technicality.

“Christian will suffer irreparable harm if he’s returned to his birth mother,” said Cindy Miller, the Twin Cities lawyer representing the Hofers. “That has to be considered.”

Tough transition

Renae Turbak, a custody evaluator who runs Turbak Conflict Resolution Center in Sioux Falls, said moving from one home to another is hard for almost all children.

She said young kids often regress, wetting themselves or acting out against adults. Children in such cases may feel abandoned by the family they are leaving, and that can have a lasting effect, making it difficult for them to form bonds with others throughout their lives.

Should Christian Hofer return to his biological mother, he’ll not only leave behind the parents he has known for more than two years, but also a 3-year-old sister and a baby brother.

“It will obviously be very difficult for this little boy, but also for that whole family,” Turbak said. “The other kids will be losing a brother; the parents will be losing a child. … It would be very, very difficult.”

Help needed

It will be a struggle for Good Bird, too. Turbak said that if Christian goes back to her, the move should be a gradual one, and a professional therapist should be involved.

It is a tragic situation, the Hofers say, that they thought they were assured would never surface.

The Hofers took Christian home on a September afternoon. During the next two years, the Hofers say, a boy who was behind in his development, who was unusually shy and yet deeply afraid of being left alone, gradually bonded with his new family.

His new parents describe him now as a little reserved but a confident, well-spoken and happy child who adores his siblings.

In the months since last August, when Good Bird made it official that she wanted her son back, the Hofers have been required to take Christian to visit her. Sixteen such appointments have been scheduled.

Bonnie Hofer said Christian calls Good Bird “that lady” and does not understand why he is going to see her. Hofer said that the confusion is troubling for Christian and that, after visiting Good Bird, the boy has started to act nervous. He stutters at times, bites his nails and has rubbed his nose compulsively.

Win or lose in court, the Hofers say, they worry those actions are blaring signs that Christian needs a stable home and feels threatened by the specter of an unwanted change.

“We’re not trying to run her (Good Bird) through the mud,” Shannon Hofer said. “We just want what’s best for Christian. We want the court to ask what really benefits him.”

Indian identity

In court documents, Good Bird argues that she is a fit mother and that returning her son to his Native roots will ultimately benefit him.

She cites congressional testimony by the Association of American Indian Affairs that noted, “Indian children growing up in non-Indian homes struggle to develop a sense of their own identity within these new communities, and that often their failure to belong leads them to alcoholism, chemical dependency and homelessness.”

Good Bird does not say in court documents why, after she gave up custody of her son, it took her two years to decide she wanted him back.

The Hofers say that’s the question they want answered.

They said they’ve had many conversations with Good Bird, trying to find common ground that will allow Christian to stay with the family he knows.

“We’ve tried everything. We’ve cried with her; we’ve prayed with her,” Bonnie Hofer said. “Our position is this: God gives kids to parents, and parents are supposed to love them, teach them, treasure them.

“Parents are not like a library. We don’t get to just check kids out and return them whenever we feel like it.”

Her voice cracked. She paused for a moment, then continued.

“I can’t just tell Christian that life’s unfair. He’s 4. He doesn’t understand that. He’ll go through serious trauma that he’ll never get over. Never. Why would anyone allow that to happen?”

CHRISTIAN UPDATE: He is happy, healthy and thriving and the Hofers are extremely grateful to have won the battle against ICWA.

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