Janice L. Lindstrom, a social worker and champion of legal rights for American Indians, and who testified in Congress for stronger protections for Indian children and families, died of cancer May 7. She was 75.
Lindstrom helped tribes and counties across the nation to develop programs to ensure that federal law was followed and Indian children were not forcibly removed from Indian families.
Her work was made possible by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a landmark federal law passed in 1978 designed to end the practice of taking Indian children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools or foster care. The law gives tribes the right to intervene in adoptions in which Indian children are put up for adoption and placed with non-Indian families.
At the time, many Indian children were being removed from their birth parents not for abuse or neglect, but because of perceived or real poverty. Harsh living conditions prompted social workers to make unwarranted removals, and poverty made it difficult for Indians to qualify as adoptive parents. Before ICWA, 25% to 35% of Indian children were being removed from their homes; of these, 85% were placed outside of their families and communities — even when able and willing relatives were available.
A member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, Lindstrom experienced this injustice firsthand. She watched as two of her younger sisters were placed in separate homes in Stillwater with non-Indian foster parents. Adding to the trauma of this separation, the family later discovered that one of Lindstrom's sisters had been sexually abused and underwent forced sterilization while in foster care.
"My mother could not stand the desecration of our families — the way they were breaking up our people — and she fought with tenacity to prevent it," said Lindstrom's daughter, Sheri Riemers, government and community relations director at the Ain Dah Yung Center, a St. Paul-based shelter for runaway and homeless youth.
Lindstrom was the oldest of five children born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. As a child, she went to live in nearby Park Rapids with her grandparents, who lived in a rustic wood cabin with an outhouse and wood-burning stove.
At 16, Lindstrom moved to the Twin Cities and did a series of odd jobs before being hired at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The center's director, Frances Fairbanks, was impressed by Lindstrom's toughness and asked her in the early 1980s to coordinate a new program to monitor the state's compliance with ICWA and ensure that tribes were notified when Indian children were being removed from their homes.
Lindstrom and her team faced numerous barriers, including local social workers and judges who were not familiar with the new federal law and the unique status of tribes. But she persuaded counties in the metro area to allow her team to monitor court proceedings and to intervene in cases where Indian children were being removed or parental rights were being terminated. Tribes across the nation would adopt similar court-monitoring programs.
"Janice was tenacious," said Rose Robinson, a longtime friend and former director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center. "She understood that when you take a child away, then you are disconnecting that child from their community and their relationships."
For the past 17 years, Lindstrom was executive director of Juel Fairbanks Recovery Services, a treatment center in St. Paul for men with substance abuse disorders. She put the center on sounder financial footing while encouraging healing through Indigenous culture and traditions.
In her final days, Lindstrom continued to counsel residents. "They revered her like a mother," said Riemers, her daughter. "She took them under her wing like they were her own sons."