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'Lost Children': Mother, advocate work to keep Native families together

Posted at 8:37 AM, Feb 21, 2023

BILLINGS - Montana’s lawmakers supporting the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act want to make sure that if anything happens at the U.S. Supreme Court level Montana’s tribes will have the same rights when it comes to dependent-neglect cases.

Elizabeth Harris said the ICWA Recovery Court in Billings helped her get her kids back.

“Being in my addiction I thought that was it. I thought I was never going to get my kids back,” Harris said.

Harris lost a lot. Her four boys were separated from her over the years.

“I missed being a mom, just having my family,” she said.

Her oldest, Christian, was literally lost at one point too. When he was reported missing in 2021, she was reported to Child Protective Services.

“He ran away from me. I was trying to clean up. I was sober, got sober enough to pass some UA’s to stay in the shelter. But after he took off, I took off, too. I just started using again," Harris said.

Harris’ CPS worker offered the ICWA treatment court as an option. It’s not an easy road.

“I’ve had to rewire my brain in every way. Thinking positive, of being in the present, being in the moment, and just being able to come back to wanting to live, ya know, without drugs and alcohol,” Harris said.

Getting Christian back was a new beginning for them both.

“Definitely being reunified with my oldest was a blessing,” Harris said. “I was scared. I was like, 'How am I going to do this, I can barely manage treatment?' Honestly, if I didn’t get that thrown on me in just the way it did, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Harris said she returned to herself, and now Christian is himself again, too.

“Christian has been on the honor roll last year and this year. It's like a big…everything is changing,” she said.

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Edie Adams

Change is something Edie Adams has seen a lot of. Adams helped develop the Indian Child Welfare Act in the 1970s and worked on every Montana reservation over the years since as a social worker or working on ICWA-related projects.

She’s seen Native kids removed over the decades without knowing who they are.

“Those children will come back looking for their family. They were told they might be related to so-and-so, they might be Northern Cheyenne. My biggest impact was up at Fort Peck, and it seemed like every year when there was the big pow wow, those lost children would come home looking for their families,” Adams said.

Federal regulations now require when an indigenous child is removed, a qualified ICWA expert witness be at the hearing. That’s Adams' latest role. She’s called to speak at hearings where a child falls under ICWA protections across the state. She says a lot has changed, but there’s more to be done.

“I think that the more communication, cooperation, that is what we really need to continue to keep growing in, so we can trust each other. Trust and communication are so important in all of our cases,” she said.

Meantime, Harris is continuing her work with the ICWA Recovery Court, hoping to be reunited with her youngest two boys as soon as possible.

“I believe that God made it this way to where I have to work for my kids, to work on getting them back, to where I have stability and just everything to be able to take care of them and myself,” Harris said.

Elizabeth Harris said the ICWA Recovery Court in Billings helped her get her kids back.