At age nine, tragedy struck Autumn Adams’ life. Her father passed away and her mother was deemed unfit to care for her, leaving Adams with an uncertain future.
Adams, who is a member of the Yakama Nation, a federally recognized Native tribe, recalls overhearing officers from Child Protective Services discuss the possibility of moving her to a non-Native home if they couldn’t soon find a Native family to place her with. The idea terrified her.
“At that point in my life, I had everything I recognized as home ripped away from me," she tells Teen Vogue. "I had to bury my father. I had to be ripped from my mother's arms. The only thing that was left that gave me that connection was my extended family and culture.”
Adams was eventually placed with family in a multigenerational home that included her maternal aunt and grandmother. Now a law student, Adams credits this upbringing with enabling her to stay close to her culture and achieve success. “I was directly able to learn from my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother, my other aunts and uncles during that time — what it means to have perseverance, what it means to have responsibility and respect, the definition of grit,” she explains. “It's through those lessons that I've broken every negative statistic not only about former foster youth but about Native former foster youth.”
In November, the Supreme Court heard arguments for a case that could forever change the landscape of adoption for Native youth like Adams. The case, Brackeen v. Haaland, focuses on the legislation that helped keep Adams’ family together: the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a landmark law from 1978 that prioritizes placing Native kids with their family or tribe. Under the ICWA, a child’s tribe is notified and given control over the adoption process; the ICWA also prioritizes placement with a child’s family or, if the former two are unavailable, tribal members and other Native tribes. These preferences don’t mean that a child must be placed in a Native home, but the process does recognize tribal sovereignty and defers to its authority.
The plaintiffs in Brackeen argue that the law doesn’t act in the best interests of children and racially discriminates against white people. At the center of the case are three non-Native couples at varying stages of attempting to adopt Native children. The Brackeens have already adopted a Native boy and hope to adopt his half-sister; the Cliffords wanted to adopt an 11-year-old Native girl, but she was placed with her grandmother instead; the Librettis successfully adopted a Native child, but maintain that the process violated their constitutional rights (the biological mother of the Librettis’ adopted child is also a plaintiff). Depending on the Court's decision, the ICWA might be overturned, with repercussions that could upend the legal basis for tribal sovereignty.
Brackeen has garnered significant attention from the Native community, with more than 450 tribal nations filing amicus briefs in support of the ICWA. Life before the ICWA was especially brutal for Native families. It was estimated that 25-35% of Native kids were removed from their homes and raised by non-Native families.