The adoption of a Navajo infant by a California couple recently challenged in Navajo Tribal Court brings back bitter memories for a Utah family once caught in a similar situation.
Dan and Pat Carter, who went to tribal court to keep their adopted Navajo son, Michael, said the ordeal faced by Cheryl and Rick Pitts, fighting to keep their 8 1/2-month-old Navajo daughter, is an emotional strain.The Pittses' adopted Navajo daughter, Allyssa Kristian Pitts, was recently put in the custody of the Navajo Tribe by a California court, which ruled the tribe had jurisdiction over the adoption.
The tribe has subsequently given the Pittses temporary custody of the infant, but not until tribal social services officials were shown on television forcibly taking custody of the child at a Phoenix airport.
"I thought it was very cold," Dan Carter said of the tribe's conduct during the custody dispute.
"I think they (the Navajo Tribe) are just flexing their muscles to see just how much authority they can have over their own people," said Carter, who with his wife, Pat, won permanent guardianship of their adopted Navajo son in 1987.
Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Indian nations have authority to administer adoptions of their own people. The Navajo Tribe was successful in challenging the Carter's adoption under the law.
The tribe was acting within the letter of the welfare law in taking custody of the Pittses' infant, Carter said. But the tribe acted with no regard for the welfare of the child or the interests of the natural mother, who in this case completely favored the adoption of her child by the Pittses.
Additionally, non-Indian parents may see their civil rights trampled by the Navajo courts.
"I don't think you will ever see the Navajo Tribe grant adoption to a non-Indian family," he said.
Carter criticized the tribe for being unaware of the public outcry that would result from media coverage of the adoption dispute, followed closely in Navajo Children's Court in Tuba City, Ariz.
"It was a PR (public relations) blunder . . . . This one blew up in their face," he said.
"We want the public to be aware of the great injustices on the reservation where the tribe is taking away the right of parents" who want to have a say in how their children are adopted, he said.
Additionally, Carter questioned the California judge's ruling that determined the child's adoption fell under tribal jurisdiction. The infant was born in California while living with the Pittses, never having been to the Navajo Indian Reservation, he said.
The Carter's adopted son was never taken away from them, as the Pittses child temporarily was taken from them, prompting the couple to charge the child was being neglected in a tribal foster home accusations denied by a tribe spokeswoman.
"That was really an emotional blow for the parents as well as the child," said Carter, who has been counseling the Pittses after meeting them on a California talk show on which the Carters appeared.
The Carters advised the Pittses to contact the press about their plight to generate support for keeping their adopted child.
"I think the media really helped us keep our child, and I think it's helped them (the Pittses) too," Carter said.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was established to promote and protect native culture among adopted Indians by giving tribes jurisdiction over administering adoptions.
"The thing you have to develop in a child is his own identity," Carter said. "It doesn't matter what race he is, and he doesn't have to be with his own culture."