She would wear moccasins and put her hair in braids.
Even before she knew who she really was, Karen Hardenbrook wanted to be Native. She even accepted the teasing from other kids in grade school who called her “squaw.”
“In a way, I didn’t mind it,” she said. “That means I really was a real Indian because that’s what everyone does to Indians.”
Her parents always told her she was adopted, but they never would confirm her suspicions about her dark skin. When she was 21, she found her birth mother living on the Omaha Reservation and her father on the nearby Winnebago Reservation.
In many ways, coming home to her family and tribal community has been the most difficult challenge for the now-55-year-old nonprofit director.
“I still feel like an outsider,” she said, choking up. “It’s hard to come home, but this is home.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could affect a federal law that might have prevented Hardenbrook from ever being adopted by a non-Native family.
Meanwhile, a state senator from Lincoln said he plans to host a hearing this summer to explore why Native children in Nebraska are removed from their homes at a rate nearly seven times that of other children.
Enacted by Congress in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act gives preference to Native parents and tribes when considering placement of Native children. It was passed to combat the high number of Native children being removed from their homes by public and private agencies.
How the justices decide the case that challenges aspects of the law could have ramifications for Native children, parents and foster parents across the country. The case involves a girl whose Cherokee father is fighting to retain custody of her despite her adoption as a newborn by a non-Native, South Carolina couple.
The case pits advocates of the law against those who want to see it changed or abolished.
“This is the right way to arrange for children to be eligible for adoption,” said Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor who wrote an amicus brief supporting the girl’s father, Dusten Brown, on behalf of 18 national child welfare organizations.
Matt and Melanie Capobianco adopted the baby girl several years ago, but the girl's father -- whom she had never met -- argued that her mother gave her up without his consent. A South Carolina court sided with Brown, and he took 3-year-old Veronica back to Oklahoma with him in 2011.
Answering an appeal by the Capobiancos, the state’s Supreme Court again sided with Brown last summer, saying in an emotional opinion that, although the Capobiancos were "ideal parents," federal law requires that custodial preference be given to the child's Native parent.
In Nebraska, 352 Native children were in foster care as of April 1 out of 5,402 total state juvenile wards, said Russ Reno, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Of those Native children, 171 were living in non-Native foster homes.
Sherri Eveleth, the state’s Native child welfare program specialist, said the state included in its figures children who were removed from their homes by three of the state’s four tribes. That’s a figure few states include in child placement numbers and could partly explain Nebraska's high Native child removal rate, she said.
The state hasn’t taken a stance on the case now before the Supreme Court, and Eveleth said she had never heard of one quite like it in Nebraska. However, she said, the state’s Indian Child Welfare Act Coalition has signed on to an amicus brief that supports Brown, the girl’s father.
The coalition includes state officials, child advocacy organizations and representatives of the state’s four tribes.
Misty Thomas, social services director for the Santee Sioux Tribe and a member of the state tribal coalition, said Nebraska has struggled to comply with certain aspects of the federal act. For example, the law requires public agencies seek a member of a child’s tribe who is recognized by that tribe as knowledgeable in tribal family customs to provide expert testimony at court placement proceedings.
Too often, the state of Nebraska has failed to find tribal members to speak in court about tribal customs, instead relying on its own child welfare specialists to offer such testimony, Thomas said.
She said she also would like to see Nebraska officials begin informing the tribe before it removes a Santee child from his or her home, a practice Iowa has adopted.
She said tribal communities struggle with rampant alcoholism and other health problems, and removal of Native children from their homes sometimes is warranted.
“Sometimes the families want us to help them get their kids back, but they’re not willing to go that mile to do what they have to do to get their kids back,” she said.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said he hoped to organize an effort this summer to try to find ways to reduce the rate of removal of Native children from their homes. He said he hoped to draft legislation for next year to improve the state’s child welfare system as it relates to Native children.
Nebraska is among states that remove the most children from their homes, he said.
“If you’re a Native American kid, your chances of being pulled out are even higher, and that just isn’t OK,” Coash said.
Eveleth said one partial solution could involve increasing the number of Native foster families in Nebraska. The state has just 68 licensed Native foster families now.
“I think we need to be looking to families and tribes as often as possible and more often than we do now,” she said.