DULUTH – Every day, Rachel Goodsky reaches for a well-worn paperback of spiritual meditations for American Indians.
She used to reach for beer when she got stressed or angry or tired or lonely. A 12-pack on an average day. A 30-pack when she wanted to get drunk.
Now she and her husband, Brad, have to prove that they can be sober parents to their three children, ages 7, 8 and 9 — or potentially lose them forever.
“They know it’s drinking that put them in foster care,” Rachel said.
The Goodsky children have cycled in and out of foster homes so often that social workers wrote “more than 500 days” on court papers that indicated the length of time in foster care.
The last time they lost their children, in December 2014, the county took the children away again. Given all the instability in the children’s lives, child protection workers thought that the children would be better off with another family.
It’s a common prospect for American Indian parents in Minnesota, which has more Indian children in foster care than any other state.
But the Goodskys fought back against a system they felt was determined to see them fail. In so doing, they invoked a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, that was enacted in part to protect Indian families from discriminatory practices in child protection cases. They prevailed after taking their complaint directly to the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Goodskys were fortunate. Of the 1,300 Indian children discharged from Minnesota foster care in 2013 and 2014, the most recent years available, only 58 percent were reunited with their parents or primary caregiver, according to a Star Tribune analysis of federal data. That’s the lowest of any racial or ethnic group.
In the year and a half that the Goodskys (pronounced good-sky) have been sober, they have gotten jobs and cars. They talk about moving out of their apartment and into a home of their own.
But one more relapse and those dreams are gone.
Rachel, 47, a member of the White Earth Nation, has gone through treatment repeatedly, but she said it’s different this time. When she has a craving, it just goes away. “Now I’m happy in my soul,” she says.
During a moment of quiet in her apartment, she opens her daily meditation.
“Oh Great Spirit,” she reads, “let me realize fully that my problems are of my own making. Therefore, so are the solutions.”
Rachel went into foster care around the age of 13, a result of her mother’s alcoholism, she said. As an adult, she followed her mother’s example. In 2003, at age 34, she was pregnant when Anoka County child protection got a report that she was using cocaine.
Around that time she ran into Brad, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. The two rekindled a spark they had when they were growing up together in Minneapolis.
Their first child, Bradley, arrived in 2007. Elizabeth followed in 2008 and Alexis in 2009. Then came Hennepin County child protection, wanting to investigate reports that the parents were abusing drugs and alcohol. In 2010, the county put the three children in foster care. Rachel gave up her eldest child, who had a different father than Brad, to an adoptive Indian family.
Under the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribes can intervene in county child protection cases. At the request of the Bois Forte Band in northern Minnesota, a Hennepin County judge transferred the case to the tribal court.
After more than 18 months in foster homes, the three Goodsky children were returned to their parents. In 2012, the Goodsky family moved into a new, three-bedroom apartment in Duluth, in a rehabbed building that accommodates low-income Indian families.
Then the parents slipped again. Around Christmas, Duluth police found Brad drunk in an apartment cluttered with garbage, old food and empty beer cans, according to court records. The three children went back into foster care.
Once again, the Bois Forte Band stepped in, asking that the case be transferred to their court. By June 2013, after more than six months away, the children returned home.
The tribe kept the case open nearly a year as St. Louis County social worker David Schunk worked with the parents to ensure they could safely take care of their children. There were suspicions that the parents were drinking again, but nothing could be proven. Bois Forte closed its case.
There would be more reports to child protection, including allegations that Brad and Rachel went on binges. But the county didn’t take the children away again until December 2014.
Back into foster care
The officer could smell the apartment from several doors away. What he found, according to court records:
“Both parents were clearly intoxicated. … The officer observed the apartment to be very dirty with no space on the floor visible due to clutter and dirt. … The refrigerator only had condiments and leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. The entire apartment smelled like urine. Ms. Goodsky admitted that the family had been sleeping on the very dirty, food laden living room floor … the children reported that they have been missing school because they don’t have clean clothing.”
What Rachel remembers: She and Brad had been drinking all day when two police officers knocked on their front door.
The officers asked Rachel to take the children to a neighbor’s apartment, where they spent the night. The next day, a social worker and a police officer told the parents that their children might not ever come back.
Under state law, the county had until June to find Bradley, Elizabeth and Alexis a permanent home.
The Goodskys were stunned. They acknowledge being drunk, but believe the county lied about the neglect in order to justify taking their children.
But St. Louis County District Judge Mark Munger, citing the Goodskys’ history, ruled in December 2014 that sending the children back home would be dangerous. The tribe declined to intervene on their behalf this time.
From that point on, the Goodskys would only be able to see their kids once a week in visits monitored by social workers, who would report back to the judge.
Brad and Rachel’s drinking got worse. They missed a visit with their children. When they did show, social workers suspected they were drunk.
On Feb. 3, 2015, Judge David Johnson ruled that, “Placement in the parental home is contrary to the best interests of the child.”
The Goodskys weren’t there to hear it. A day earlier, a building social worker had found Rachel lying on a mattress in her room, barely conscious, her skin yellow. Her liver was failing.
Paramedics took her to a hospital, where she lay in a coma-like state. Already faced with losing his kids, Brad learned from a doctor that his wife was on the brink of dying. With his life at bottom, he prayed. He said God told him everything would be all right.
More than a week later Rachel began to regain consciousness. She said she realized for the first time that she was going to lose her children forever if she didn’t commit to getting sober.
“They don’t deserve to be watching me sit on the couch, drinking beers,” she said.
Later that month, Schunk, the social worker, laid out eight tasks for the parents if they wanted to get their children back. Get treatment and therapy. Stay sober. Don’t break the law. Attend visits with the kids. Attend parenting classes.
By mid-April, the parents were complying. Both successfully went through treatment and were going to AA. They were passing drug tests. Brad got a job as a handyman. They made all their visits with their children, and they started improving.
Still, Schunk recommended that the children remain in foster care and urged the judge to permanently terminate the Goodskys’ parental rights.
“Currently Bradley and Rachel are doing well,” he wrote. “They have done quite well in the past while in treatment and for a period of time after that. They have not been able to demonstrate long-term sobriety and ability to provide the stability the children need.”
After the court-appointed child advocate and judge agreed with Schunk, the Goodskys began to fear that whatever they did would not be enough to bring their children home.
They filed a complaint with the state ombudsperson for American Indian families, who told them about a forum being held in early May in Shakopee by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The head of the BIA would be there to talk about their plans to strengthen the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Under ICWA and guidelines issued by the BIA, Indian children should be kept in foster care only if they face “imminent physical damage or harm.” The guidelines direct child protection workers to return children to their parents once the emergency has ended.
At the BIA forum, the Goodskys were surrounded by a crowd who felt too many of their children were going into foster care, by parents who believed they wrongly lost their children, by Indians who grew up in the system and told stories about being robbed of their culture and traditions.
The Goodskys were inspired to share their story.
“It’s like [child protection] has a crystal ball and we’re doomed to fail,” Rachel said into the microphone. The audience cheered them when they finished.
A few days later, they filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Services alleging their rights under ICWA were being violated.
The fight continues
About a week later, the Goodskys met with Schunk to go over the case. Brad took notes on the meeting.
Schunk “continues to say that he feels it would be bad to give the kids a sense that they’re coming home,” Brad wrote.
Two weeks later, an advocate at the building they live in, Patti Larsen, wrote Schunk asking that the family at least be allowed unsupervised visits. Another worker in their apartment building wrote a letter saying that when the kids were removed, there was food in the house, refuting at least one part of the officer’s report the day the kids were put into foster care.
On June 4, Brad and Rachel got more bad news. With the children gone, their family was no longer big enough to need a three-bedroom apartment. Unless the Goodskys got their children back, they would have to get out by the end of July.
As the next court hearing drew near, Schunk filed another report. He noted that the parents complied with the case plan, but after consulting with therapists, care providers and the court-appointed child advocate, he continued to insist that transfer of legal custody of the children was in their best interests. Johnson, the judge, set an August 2015 trial date to determine the Goodskys’ parental rights.
Furious, Brad and Rachel wrote a letter to the judge, accusing the county of violating ICWA.
“The emergency with which the children were removed has ended and the children should be returned to our care immediately,” they wrote. “This is ICWA LAW.”
Johnson and Schunk declined to comment for this story.
A few weeks later, the parents had their first unsupervised visit. Then the children stayed with their parents overnight, the first time they had been back in their home in more than seven months.
The parents were thrilled to get their kids back, but also scared. The reversal happened so suddenly that the Goodskys said they weren’t prepared for it. The parents watched their children run around the living room, followed them as they inspected their rooms, put their old clothes on and tried to figure out what was moved.
What Rachel remembers most: They wanted to know where their parents put the Christmas tree.
On July 29, 2015, Johnson ordered continued home visits “with the expectation that the children will remain in the home for the foreseeable future.” He ended the efforts to terminate the Goodskys’ parental rights.
In November, he closed the case.
Since then, Rachel’s Facebook page is a chronicle of how far they’ve come.
There’s the family selfie in the van as Rachel shouts “We bought a boat!” There’s Rachel’s post in April where she’s getting additional training for her job. Brad got a new job that pays more and has better hours. There’s the picture of Rachel standing with the SUV they bought, and the trip to Gooseberry Falls along the North Shore, the kids grinning widely while the waterfalls rush behind them.
The refrigerator is stocked with milk, eggs, containers of leftovers, and Alexis’ favorite, pickles.
The home smells faintly of smoke from the daily smudging, an Indian practice of purifying their home and bodies by burning dried sage and sweetgrass and waving the smoke with a feather.
At a therapy session in April, the Goodskys listened for an hour as their children shared fears that their parents would start drinking again and they would have to go back to foster care.
The Goodskys promised them: That’s never going to happen.
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.