the welfare of a
child for political and “cultural” agendas:
In the Matter of the Custody of S.E.G.—nine years later
by Clara NiiSka
“She had been so alone – and now she’s terribly alone,” Carol Campbell told Press/ON. “She has been a victim of a system that had let her down. … I love her and support her.”
Carol Campbell lay in bed, paralyzed from the chest down in consequence of multiple stab wounds. The young woman of whom Carol spoke, her voice sometimes cracking with grief, is Sierra Goodman, age 17. Sierra is incarcerated at the Northwest Juvenile Training Center on the outskirts of Bemidji after pleading guilty to two counts of aiding first-degree assault and two counts of aiding an offender.
On the afternoon of May 28, 2001, Sierra’s 14-year-old boyfriend, Darryl Headbird, Jr., allegedly stabbed Carol’s husband, Gene Campbell, and then stabbed Carol Campbell twice in the back, wounding both Campbells severely enough “to cause death if they had not received medical help,” according to staff writer Molly Miron’s August 31 report in the Bemidji Pioneer. The boy also allegedly murdered his father, Darryl Headbird, Sr., on May 26th. Headbird Sr. was discovered dead at his residence—just north of Cass Lake, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation—the evening after the attack on the Campbells.
The Beltrami County criminal complaint against Sierra Goodman indicates that the Campbells were looking for her on the afternoon of May 28th, after she “ran away” from her foster aunt’s home. The Campbells found Sierra walking with her boyfriend down a county road not far from the Headbird residence. As Press/ON reported on June 1, there was an “altercation” when the Campells drove up to the teenage couple. According to Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winter, the boy reportedly stabbed the Campbells, then fled with the girl in the Campbell’s pickup truck. The teenagers were arrested that night as they were hitchhiking along State Highway 2 about 75 miles east of Bemidji.
Some media reports shortly after the murder of Darryl Headbird Sr. and the assaults on the Campbells noted a possible “cult” connection. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Gordon Headbird, a cousin, described both teenagers as avid readers of “cult books.” The Bemidji Pioneer expanded on possible “Gothic cult” connections, quoting a regional source about area teens’ attraction to Gothic cult rituals.
“subjected to numerous foster home placements”
Sierra Goodman’s lonely journey to a cell in the Northwest Juvenile Training Center, stark, like a “jail, stripped of everything … no makeup,” not even a hairbrush, began long before she fled into the night of May 28th with her boyfriend, hitchhiking on Highway 2.
Born in March 1984, according to court records Sierra endured a “history of parental abandonment,” and she was “subjected to numerous foster home placements.” When she was two years old, she was “placed” in the home of her uncle, then after three months, she was returned to her birth mother. Four months later, her mother married a white man and “moved out of state, despite a court order forbidding such a move.” When the family removed to Minnesota, Sierra and one of her sisters lived with their maternal grandmother. Then, when she was less than four years old, Sierra was “placed” in foster care along with both her sisters. Ten months later, she was moved to another foster home, then twenty months later—when she was only six years old, “abruptly removed from this home after sexual abuse allegations arose.” Although, according to court records, the “R.” foster parents were “cleared” of the allegations, Sierra and her young sisters were moved again, into yet another foster home, then, “due to a marriage dissolution, the children were abruptly returned to the home of their uncle.” Diane White, Sierra’s former Guardian ad litem, told Press/ON that Sierra had endured more than twenty foster home “placements.”
In April 1991, shortly after Sierra’s seventh birthday, she was placed with Gene and Carol Campbell. The Campbells had been licensed foster parents through the Professional Association of Treatment Homes (PATH) since 1984, and over the years had shared their home with sixty-two children. The Campbells are white; court records indicate that, “at the time of the placement” with the Campbells, “there were no Indian PATH foster homes available.”
Nine month later, in January 1992, Sierra and her sisters were moved to the “preadoptive” home of a white man and his 1/16 Chippewa wife, who according to court records was an “enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa.” The move was made “with little preparation and without any prior overnight visits,” and nine days later the children were returned to Gene and Carol Campbell’s home.
In October 1992, the children were taken from the Campbells again, and “placed in an Indian foster home,” then a month later were moved again into yet another foster home. In November 1992, Gene and Carol Campbell filed a custody petition and sought to adopt Sierra and both her sisters.
“an extensive custody battle”: the Trial Court
In its August 31st article reporting on Sierra Goodman’s plea bargain—guilty to four amended felony charges in exchange for amendment of the original charges of aiding and abetting the attempted murder of Gene and Carol Campbell—the Bemidji Pioneer reports that the Campbells “began fostering” Sierra and her two sisters when Sierra was seven, “but kept her for only about 18 months before having to go through an extensive custody battle.” The Campbells lost custody, but Sierra “worked hard to return to the Campbells and succeeded in coming home to them nine months ago” when she turned sixteen—eight long years later.
The custody battle began shortly after Gene and Carol Campbell sought to adopt Sierra and her sisters in late 1992.
Although Sierra and her sisters’ father was white, their mother was an enrolled Leech Lake Indian, according to one informed source “fullblood or almost,” so the children were “enrollable” at Leech Lake although at the time of the “custody battle” they had reportedly not yet been enrolled. Currently, federally-recognized Indian enrollment generally requires at least ¼ “blood quantum” from one Indian reservation, so any children Sierra or her sisters might have could very easily be legally non-Indians, removed from “the tribe” not by adoption but by blood quantum requirements.
The Leech Lake Band of Chippewa asserted jurisdiction over Sierra and her sisters under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and opposed the Campbell’s petition for adoption. The matter went to trial in March and April 1993. After a six-day trial, Minnesota District Court Judge J. P. Smith of Cass County granted the Campbell’s request to adopt Sierra and her sisters, based on the “extraordinary needs” of the children. Judge Smith resided in Walker, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake reservation, was doubtless familiar with local Indian and white cultures, and, it is clear from court records, weighed the particular circumstances of the case and “determined that ‘good cause’ existed to deviate from the adoption placement preferences” of ICWA.
Diane White was the court-appointed Guardian ad litem for Sierra and her sisters during the custody battles of 1993-1994; at that time she was completing a degree in Social Work at Bemidji State University. She granted Press/ON’s request for an interview earlier this week. Diane is an enrolled member and resident of the Leech Lake Reservation who, she acknowledged, was criticized harshly by some in the Indian community for supporting the Campbell’s petition to adopt. She explained to Press/ON that her personal position had initially been, “hands down—‘no way’ to white adoption” of Indian children. But, she added, “I had to be objective, look at the facts.” She visited with Sierra and her sisters, visited the Campbells, read through Leech Lake Social Services’ records, and interviewed other people involved. Sierra “really did need a permanent situation,” a “home where she could bond” with her adoptive parents.
“I do not think that race in this case should have been considered as the only factor,” Diane White explained to Press/ON. She also commented that in two of the “placements” proposed by the Leech Lake Band, one of the parents was white, and the other was 1/16 Indian. “If you’re a little kid and looking at adults” and “that person has white skin, looks white,” the physical reality outweighed legal distinctions relating to tribal enrollment. When Diane questioned one of the foster families proposed by the Leech Lake Band, she “openly stated” that she was not interested in providing a permanent home for Sierra and her sisters, that she had “no intention of keeping those kids until they were eighteen.” The Leech Lake Band misrepresented the permanency of their proposed “placements,” and, Diane recalled, were “trying to discredit the Campbells in every possible way they could … they were willing to go to any lengths to make sure that the kids were not adopted” by the non-Indian Campbells.
Diane White represented herself—and the interests of the children as their Guardian ad litem—without an attorney, pro se during the trial court proceedings. The Campbells, who eventually had to mortgage their home to pay the more than $80 thousand in legal bills they incurred in the lengthy custody battle, were represented by attorney Wright Walling of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Leech Lake Band was represented by tribal attorney Anita Fineday; and Shari Schluchter, Assistant Beltrami County Attorney, initially represented the County.
In an order issued May 20, 1993, Judge Smith determined that “‘good cause’ existed to deviate from the adoption placement preferences in the Indian Child Welfare Act and granted” the Campbell’s request to adopt Sierra and her sisters.
The Leech Lake Band appealed, supported in its opposition to the adoption by Beltrami County and the Red Lake Band.
“an extensive custody battle”: the Court of Appeals
A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on September 8th, 1993, in the Beltrami County Courthouse in Bemidji. The Court of Appeals decision was filed on November 16, 1993, affirming Judge Smith’s decision to grant the Campbell’s petition to adopt Sierra and her sisters. The case was considered and decided by Court of Appeals Judges Fred Norton, Doris Huspeni, and Robert Schumacher. Judge Huspeni wrote the majority opinion, and Judge Schumacher—currently serving as chairman of the State-Tribal Court Committee—wrote a strongly-worded dissent.
As Judge Huspeni explained in the majority opinion, “the central issue in this case is whether there was ‘good cause’ to deviate from the adoption preferences” in the ICWA. The Court of Appeals held that “there must be clear and convincing evidence of ‘good cause’ to deviate from the adoption placement preferences in the Act” (ICWA), and that what “constitutes ‘good cause’ is unique to the individual facts of a case.” The Court of Appeals found that ICWA “does not change the cardinal rule that the best interests of the child are paramount,” and that the evidence presented at the trial clearly supported Judge Smith’s finding that Sierra and her sisters needed “permanent placement now and for the duration of their childhood and adolescence.”
“While we share the concerns raised by the dissent that white, middle-class standards of permanency may be misapplied in cases involving the Act, we believe that all children, whatever their cultural or ethnic heritage, may develop extraordinary needs. The role of permanence in meeting the extraordinary needs of the three children in this case cannot be minimized. … [T]he children’s need for a permanent and stable home … must take precedence over the benefits derived from day-to-day exposure to their cultural heritage.” The Court of Appeals ruled that ICWA “does not contemplate that a state court must give complete deference to tribal recommendations with regard to the placement of Indian children,” and affirmed the Judge Smith’s decision that the Campbells “shall be allowed to proceed with the adoption” of Sierra and her sisters.
Judge Schumacher, in his dissent, wrote that “the trial court erroneously construed the Act to favor a permanent home placement over cultural heritage,” and argued that “tribal sovereignty” should prevail in determining the fate of Sierra and her sisters. “The children’s cultural heritage can only be maintained by living in an Indian environment and practicing Indian rituals on a daily basis,” Schumacher wrote. “The trial court abused its discretion in finding ‘good cause’ to deviate from the adoption preferences in the Act.”
As Melissa Kleingartner reported for the Bemidji Pioneer shortly after the Court of Appeals decision was filed on November 16, appellate Judge Huspeni acknowledged that “if a child in need of permanence determines exceptions to [ICWA], then nearly every Indian child could be placed with white parents.” However, as Judge Huspeni pointed out in the majority opinion, the situation addressed by the case was “extraordinary,” and, she told the Pioneer, upholding the trial court decision “would not trigger the destructive sequences foreseen by Beltrami County and the tribe—consequences which all concerned in this matter wish to avoid.” Assistant Beltrami County Attorney Shari Schluchter disagreed. “Essentially, as the tribe indicated, [the Court of Appeals is] … crating a new exception for the placement of children in non-Indian homes … in my opinion, that’s devastating,” she said.
In an editorial published in Press/ON on November 19, Bill Lawrence wrote that the Court of Appeals “decision was clearly in the best interests of the children, despite the best efforts of some big egos, hype, intimidation and tribal politics. It is rather doubtful, as claimed by some tribal attorneys, that an unfavorable decision in this case could undermine the purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act or seriously affect the viability of Indian tribes.” Lawrence pointed out that “three-fourths of the Native community in Minnesota live off reservations, and a lot of us don’t want tribal attorneys or officials making decisions for us that affect us off reservations. That is why we left reservations in the first place.” In retrospect, Lawrence adds, “I think that culture is a personal thing. For a court of non-Indians who do not understand Indian culture, sitting in an ivory tower telling us how to live, forcing whites’ ‘noble savage mentality’ interpretations of Indian culture to be a part of how our children are raised, is ridiculous.”
Following the Court of Appeals decision, on November 19, 1993 Sierra and her sisters were allowed to move back to Gene and Carol Campbell’s care. Then, the Leech Lake Band appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and seven days after the children were returned to the Campbells, they were removed again.
As Diane White put it, Sierra had finally found “a home she could bond with.” Then, a week later, she was “ripped out of her home, because of her race.”
Pioneer writer Melissa Kleingartner explained in mid-January 1994, while the State Supreme Court was still considering whether or not to review the case, “The Leech Lake Band of Chippewa are fighting the adoption because it believes the adoption could severely damage the Indian Child Welfare Act.” It does not appear, from news reports written at that time, that the welfare of Sierra and her sisters was of significant concern to the Leech Lake Band.
“an extensive custody battle”: the Minnesota Supreme Court
On Tuesday, May 31, 1994, five Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments: Chief Justice Alexander “Sandy” Keith, and Justices Sandra Gardebring, Alan Page, Esther Tomljanovich, and Jeanne Coyne. Paul Anderson, at that time newly-appointed to the Supreme Court, did not participate.
Revisiting the issue in response to this article, Lawrence adds that, “the State Supreme Court’s reversal of the Trial Court and Court of Appeals decisions was based on politics, rather than on the best interests of the children. How often has the Supreme Court reversed both the Trial Court and the Court of Appeals—when the record so clearly supported the decision made by the Trial Court? The liberal bent of that court—all a liberal interpretation of this thing … I wonder how that discussion went, when they decided to vote on it.”
And the aftermath …
Sierra was eventually legally adopted by Melvin and Audrey Goodman, but according to an informed source, never bonded with them. More than once, Press/ON has learned, Sierra ran toward the Campbells’ home, once crossing the long back-country miles through a cold early-winter night, reportedly hiding in ditches whenever she heard a car, crying her urgent yearning for love with the drumbeat of her feet on frozen ground. The Campbells would have been legally compelled to call the police, forced by the State Supreme Court’s decision to return Sierra to legal custody as adjudicated under that court’s interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. And at least once the consequences of Sierra’s trying to come “home” was “high-level juvenile custody.”
In his September 1994 editorial, Bill Lawrence commented on the “estimated $100,000 that has been spent on legal fees” in the case so far. “Also,” he continued, “what will foster care cost be for the three children involved,” in comparison to what it would have cost for the Campbells to adopt the children. “But,” Bill observed, “when you consider that all the judges, social workers and most of the attorneys in the case were paid for by the same source they certainly don’t have any motivation to hold down costs.” Diane White also commented that the case involved substantial expenditures of money, as well as human costs. She noted that the adoption which was finally made included a substantial, and ongoing, “adoption subsidy”—about $30,000 per year—provided for in ICWA.
Press/ON contacted former Chief Justice Sandy Keith for comment. Chief Justice Keith commented briefly, then responded more fully after reviewing the decision his court handed down seven years ago. “I wrote the opinion,” he acknowledged, “it was a unanimous decision.” He explained the grounds for the Supreme Court’s apparent disregard for Sierra and her sisters’ welfare. “Obviously, there is a supremacy clause problem. The Indian Child Welfare Act creates a presumption that the placement of Indian children within the preference of the Act is in the best interests of the children. Basically, one of the problems with the case is that of finding that the Native American children possessed extraordinary needs,” which could not be met within the preferences of ICWA.
Press/ON asked Chief Justice Keith about his Court’s disqualification of Diane White as an expert witness—even though she had been appointed as Guardian ad Litem for Sierra and her sisters. ICWA “is a strange law,” the former Chief Justice explained. “It also spells out” the qualifications for expert witnesses. He noted the large number of amici curiae who participated in the proceedings. “Everybody filed briefs,” he said, listing some of the numerous participants, “we had briefs from everybody.” An informed source told Press/ON that Sierra had written to the Court, asking that the Campbells be allowed to adopt her—but the letters from the ten-year-old girl pleading for a voice in determination of her future are not even mentioned in the Court’s decision.
Press/ON asked again about Diane White’s compelling testimony in support of the Campbell’s adoption of Sierra and her sisters. “That could well be,” the former Chief Justice responded. “We had to call them as we saw them. … We thought that the trial court handled it pretty well; the findings of the court were clear.” He stressed that what determined the State Supreme Court’s decision was the law: Congress, numerous Indian tribal governments, and the B.I.A. have “set out this policy. The problem is that [ICWA] is such a clear law.” It would be “tough to find an exception that clearly merits some other placement” beyond the Indian preferences detailed in ICWA, especially one which would be legally sustainable, “if the tribe is determined to assert their rights.”
Former Chief Justice Keith continued, “politically, I don’t like these statutes. …. I don’t like these preference law at all.” Press/ON asked about the apparent political influence underlying the Supreme Court’s reversal of the lower courts’ decisions. “I didn’t write anything I thought was political,” he responded. Particularly with minority children, there is “a difficult time getting children into permanent homes.” But, he continued, “that area of law is determined by the legislature,” and the role of Judges is not to make the law, “but to interpret it.”
Chief Justice Keith also commented that, “these preferential statutes often don’t solve the problem of getting children into permanent, loving homes,” and that he has “tried to change the law locally” with reference to African-American adoptions. The former Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court added, in closing, that “the adversary system has a lot of limitations in this area of human conflict”—family law—and “we should start thinking of ways” to address the problems inherent in the adversary system.
Press/ON also contacted Assistant Beltrami County Attorney Shari Schlucter for comment, and asked her about her involvement in advocating a rigid interpretation of ICWA on behalf of Beltrami County. Schlucter stated, “All I can tell you is that since that case, I have had no contact with Sierra.” When pressed, she explained that, “the ICWA is the law, and my job is to enforce the law. That was a long time ago, and the Supreme Court spoke.”
Press/ON also attempted to contact former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Gardebring, now Vice President of University Relations at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities; at press time she had not responded.
Bill Lawrence, who has been involved in covering the case since it was first heard at the trial court level, said for this article that, “to me, the ‘need’—especially the extraordinary needs of these children—should have been paramount in this case. By the time the Campbell’s adoption petition got to the trial court, the children they sought to adopt had been abused by the system for years. They should not have been sacrificed for any reason at all. Yet the county and tribal lawyers, and the Supreme Court thought more about ICWA, culture and sovereignty, then about the three children involved. Now, the bad law they made has come back to haunt them.”There is one other voice whose echoes haunt this writer: that of Carol Campbell. As she lay paralyzed in her bed, talking to Press/ON, Carol said, “By the time it reached the Supreme Court, it was nothing but political moves. The needs of the children were not considered at all.” Then Carol added, I would like people to know that Sierra means a lot to us. We love her. We feel that she is a victim of system-abuse.”