Since the 1978 passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribes have taken over the well being of Native American children, who experience the third highest rate of victimization at 11.6 per 1,000 children of the same race or ethnicity. For members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Indian Child Welfare department, the first priority is the child’s safety. Beyond that, the department strives to preserve tribal families and keep Potawatomi children under tribal supervision, rather than have them placed in state care.

Foster Care and Adoption Specialist Darla (Ham) Courtney works each day towards these goals in her oversight of Potawatomi children in need of safe, stable home environments. The Shawnee native has worked for the tribe since June 2009, following the completion of her BA in Behavioral Science at MidAmerica Christian University.

“While my two daughters were in high school, our family served as a therapeutic foster home,” explained Courtney. “After we no longer provided foster care, the foster children and overall foster experience never left my mind or my heart. I can truthfully say that this is my dream job and I could not be happier.”

Courtney coordinates with other case officers in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation ICW Department who look out for Potawatomi youth. She is responsible for the recruitment, training and licensing of foster homes on behalf of the tribe. The process, which includes background checks, interviews and an application process, must be complete before a home is approved for child placement. Once approval is granted, Courtney maintains the home and children’s files and makes sure they adhere to CPN’s guidelines. This includes personal visits with each child placed in foster care.

“As a former foster parent, I understand the worries and concerns of the foster parents,” said Courtney. “Having walked in their shoes, I can truly say, ‘I know how you feel.’ As for the children, the first day they are taken from the home, they’re i scared and usually crying.  When I see them a short time later, a smile on that child’s face lets me know that they’re comfortable in the foster care home and their needs are being met.”

“Darla has improved our foster care and adoption program beyond words,” said CPN’s ICW Department Director Janet Draper. “She is able to keep up with the legal changes, maintain all the state and tribal forms and visitation of children who are in CPN custody.  Prior to Darla, the program existed, but with only myself and BJ Trousdale it was difficult to keep up with everything necessary to ensure the children and families were being served 100 percent and in a timely manner.”

The goal of tribal administered foster care is to ultimately reunite families if parental rights have been suspended. Through mandatory mentoring from ICW staff, parents are taught how to develop the skills necessary to regain custody and foster a stable home life. During their time in foster care, children receive mental, physical and emotional support with the hope being that once reunited the family is stronger and healthier than in the past and has hope for the future.

“I would be lying if I said there weren’t days that the weight of the negatives of this job doesn’t bother me,” she explained. “However, the positives are so rewarding that the negatives take a back seat. One of the greatest joys is to see a family that had literally fell apart and hit rock bottom become a loving, functioning, successful family unit.”

Though all outcomes of family reconciliation aren’t successful, Courtney also oversees the adoption process for Potawatomi children. In those instances where a child moves from foster care to the adoption process, Courtney assists the adoptive family throughout the procedure by helping fill out applications for custody and adoption subsidies.

As Courtney pointed out, “For children that are not able to be reunited with their family, positives are still there. Adoption days are very special to me.  When parents have chosen to provide the child with a forever family, it is a day of completion for the case but a new beginning for the child and their new family.  Seeing the joy and love on the family’s face as the adoption is granted is priceless.”

If you would like more information on CPN’s youth and family services, please visit the FireLodge Children and Family Services website or call either 405-275-3176 or (1) 800-880-9880.