Missing Threads: The Story of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act

Missing Threads: The Story of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act. 57  min. Part of the McMillan Library Film Festival.

Program will include a discussion with Director Susan Reetz and Jean-Ann Day, who appears in the film.

There is a thread that connects a child to their culture, 
to their sense of self, home and belonging. 
When that thread is broken or missing, the individual and the culture suffer. 
Can the thread be mended? Can connection be restored?
A culture will die without its children. Yet the removal of Native American children from their homes and families has occurred at the alarming rate of 25% of all children. Many Indian families have experienced the loss of children to non-tribal homes, even when a relative or other tribal member was willing and able to provide a safe, stable and loving home for the child.  This has happened in Wisconsin despite the existence of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), signed into law in 1978, is one of the most litigated federal Indian laws of the past 35 years, and arguably the most important in the lives of Native people and communities. It has unfortunately been misunderstood, misapplied and too often completely ignored. That history has led several states to pass into law their own versions of ICWA in one form or another.  
In 2005 Wisconsin was found to be in noncompliance with ICWA. Statistics and common knowledge indicated persistent and systemic problems with implementing the federal law. All 11 Wisconsin tribes agreed that something needed to change. In 2008 a remarkable state coalition formed to develop and promote the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA). This coalition was comprised of tribal attorneys, tribal social services directors, Indian rights advocates and representatives from the state, primarily from what is now the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF). What made this coalition remarkable was the tenacity and commitment stretched continuously over a period of nearly four years in pursuing this dream. For many it was the most sustained and cogent collaboration of tribal and state energies they have ever participated in.
There were obstacles to overcome, some anticipated (private adoption attorneys) and some not (Children and the Law Section of the Wisconsin State Bar). There were numerous competing interests to reconcile or overcome. Ambiguities in the ICWA were addressed by fortifying the language in the WICWA to clarify those problem clauses in a pro-Indian way consistent with the spirit and intent of the original ICWA. Going that extra mile had the effect of increasing the adversarial obstacles to enactment. The 11 Wisconsin tribes and the state government stood together and persevered, and these issues were met and addressed finally in a long and moving state legislative Hearing that was filmed (footage available through Wisconsin Eye). WICWA passed unanimously – a rare feat - in October of 2009 and resulted in what is arguably the strongest state enactment of ICWA anywhere in the country. This is a story of hard work and success, and ultimately, “the preservation of a culture’s future, not just its past.” (Senator Bob Jauch, sponsor of the bill.)
Telling the story of the law’s creation and eventual enactment, interwoven with first-hand accounts from individuals directly affected by outplacement, provides both macro and the micro views and makes the topic accessible to viewers of all different backgrounds. It was recently awarded a Golden Reel from the Media Communications Association – International. The judges had this to say about the film:
  • What a heart breaking thing to do to children! This was a wonderfully engaging piece. it's all about the process of getting legislation passed. knowing who to approach and how. Really wonderfully done.
  • Excellent storytelling. Well written and convincing.
  • Moving and well-told story. Great mix of interview, reenactment, general video and graphics.  Great demonstration of the power of video story-telling.
  • Moving and educational!
  • Right off the bat the narrator grabbed me. Serious goose bumps throughout the opening. The stories and interviews were great. Music works so well. Liked the title treatment a lot. The effect on the stills was effective. The first 5 minutes really set up for the factual part. I just don't know what else to say - this is an incredible piece.