ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Years ago, Carol Ricotta’s father made a cradleboard for her first son. She said her son loved it, wrapped in a blanket and strapped with leather cords to two flat boards with a wooden halo over his head.
The boy grew up, and Ricotta, who is Navajo, used the cradleboard as a wall decoration for decades.
But since about four years ago, the cradleboard has been back in use as Carol and her husband, Terry Ricotta, began taking foster kids into their home. The cradleboard comforts babies, most of whom are American Indian.
“I think more Natives need to stand up and have a culture for these kids to experience,” she said, “even if we’re not part of the same tribe.”
The state needs American Indian foster care parents like Carol Ricotta, say officials in the Children, Youth and Families Department.
The need stems from the federal 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which mandates how child welfare agencies place children.
As with children of any ethnicity, the act requires an agency to try to place children with family members first. If family members are unwilling or fail a background check, then the agency tries to place the children with a member of the same tribe as the child, then a member of any American Indian tribe. If a home still can’t be found, children can be placed with foster parents of another ethnicity.
It’s important to keep American Indian children in American Indian homes “because it’s family. Family taking care of family,” said Brenda Valle, a foster mom in Farmington who is also Navajo. All of the American Indian foster children who have stayed in her home have been related to her in one way or another, Valle said.
“I’ve enjoyed opening the children’s eyes to a different lifestyle,” Valle said, “and how different healthy lifestyles can be a contributing influence on their own.”
But there simply aren’t enough homes in New Mexico right now, especially in Bernalillo, San Juan and McKinley counties. In Bernalillo County, 56 of the 65 American Indian children are in homes headed by other ethnicities; in San Juan, it’s 23 of 58; and in McKinley, it’s 34 of 70.
“We’re scrambling to find the homes, in combination with the child’s tribe or pueblo,” said Jared Rounsville, director of state Child Protective Services. In New Mexico, he said, American Indians are overrepresented in the foster system, “though it’s not a drastic over-representation like it is in some states.”
In Bernalillo County, American Indians made up about 15 percent of the 255 children in state custody in April-June 2011, according to CYFD records. That rate is more than twice the amount they make up in the county’s population as a whole.
CYFD officials do work with tribes and pueblos to place children on reservations if possible, but proper homes can be as difficult to find on reservations as off, said Nichole Garcia, the department’s San Juan County office manager.
Many tribes and pueblos have their own child welfare systems responsible for children on reservations, so the CYFD children usually come from urban areas.
The only time CYFD intervenes in child abuse cases on reservations is when those cases involve non-American Indian families, Garcia said.
Garcia, who has been working with CYFD in San Juan County for about 19 years, said Native children face extra hurdles in the foster system.
For instance, if a child is placed in a non-American Indian home but the department finds an American Indian home within a year, the child must be moved.
Then there’s the issue of what tribe or pueblo a child belongs to: Often, children have an affiliation registered, but sometimes the department makes the decision based on the mother’s affiliation.
Sometimes there are legal battles between tribes that may result in a child being moved from home to home without much warning.
That’s what happened to a former foster daughter of the Ricottas, who was suddenly claimed by her father’s tribe. They had 45 minutes to take her home, pack her things and send her on her way.
“That’s the hardest part,” said Carol Ricotta, who is raising two adopted and three foster children. “I have my emotional moments when I have to let them go.”
When placing children, CYFD takes other factors into consideration, too. For instance, it’s often important not to remove children from schools or communities, so it might make sense to find a family nearby rather than an American Indian family in another area.
“It really depends on individual case factors,” Garcia said.
No matter where you look in the state, Rounsville said, Native foster care providers are needed. The process of becoming a foster parent requires a four-week training course and up to six months of home visits and licensing.
Foster parents are reimbursed for many of the expenses of raising their children, and there are no prerequisites to becoming a foster parent, such as marital or financial status.
“Being a single parent,” Valle said, “I know I don’t have the financials to entertain or provide so much. But I know the things I’ve learned growing up on the reservation. There are creative ways of being a part of Mother Nature. It essentially comes back to that lifestyle we’re trying to put back in a child’s life.”