When the phone rings in the middle of the night and a Citizen Potawatomi child faces court proceedings potentially placing them in foster care, people like Janet Draper take the call. As the director of the Tribal Indian Child Welfare Program, she and her staff play a vital role in the lives of young Tribal members across the country during some of the worst days of their lives.

Draper knows from personal experience how important her department’s role is in serving Citizen Potawatomi youth.

“I was raised in foster care, a ward of the State of Kansas,” Draper said.

She quit school in the eighth grade and began working her first job as a car wash attendant at the age of 14. Draper held other jobs as she got older. Eventually, she realized graduating from high school or securing a GED would be necessary to move up the employment ladder.

Janet Draper, CPN Indian Child Welfare Department director.

“I was flipping through a magazine one day and saw an ad for a high school diploma. So, I sent off for it and got it and paid my money,” Draper said. “And the state of Oklahoma recognized that as a regular high school diploma.”

Degree in hand, Draper found an opportunity to work as an officer at an Oklahoma Department of Corrections facility in Lexington, Oklahoma.

“I don’t know why I chose it, but once I got into there, I loved it,” she admitted. “I worked at Joe Harp correctional facility for two years. Once I got the job and started, it was my goal to be the first female warden.”

During her time as a corrections officer at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, Draper oversaw an all-male population. Though the presence of female correctional officers is more common today, Draper was one of a select few on the job in the early 1980s.

“Well, I thought it was relatively easy if you went in there with your eyes open and treated people fairly and made sure they followed the rules,” Draper attested.

She described her time managing the prisoners as “a world inside a world,” where rules, norms and expected behaviors governed those locked up.

“It was interesting. Again, it was an all-male facility, and so you had to be sure of yourself to be there,” she said. “That’s not a job for every female, and I saw quite a few come and go within those two years that I was there.”

Draper eventually left the prison despite her fondness for the job. She admired the way many of the inmates adhered to the rules established by the correctional center and the prison population themselves. Yet as time went on, the lack of adherence to those same standards by fellow correctional officers became too much to stomach.

“It was hard to watch people, the other staff officers, break rules. And the way they treated inmates is one of the biggest reasons why I left. I just didn’t think it was humane,” she said.

The next step in her life took her to the court of Judge Alan Couch, Associate District Judge of Cleveland County who emphasized juvenile justice throughout his career. Combining her interest in the criminal justice system with her passion for helping troubled youth, Draper became a case officer for Judge Couch. Her own experiences in the foster care system shaped her views on such an emotionally toiling mission. To continue her work, Draper knew she needed a higher education degree.

While working full time, she started at Rose State Junior College in Midwest City, Oklahoma, before moving to the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond to complete her bachelor’s degree. With the encouragement of Judge Couch, Draper then decided to pursue a graduate degree to focus on her work with youth. She eventually graduated from East Central University in Ada with a master’s degree in juvenile justice, completing school while continuing to work full time. Draper managed both with an additional factor; her young son.

“For me to be able to go to school, I had to take him with me. So, he went to college with me through the entire time,” she recounted. “He was a good kid, so the professors let him stay in class. He would sit in the class with me and pretend he was taking tests and things.”

Draper found herself increasingly drawn to the impacts of the juvenile justice and foster care systems on Native American children. In part, that interest stems from her own family’s experiences. Though not a card-carrying citizen of the tribe, Draper has documentation showing ancestors who were citizens of the Cherokee Nation. Her son and former husband are both members of the Choctaw Nation. This, coupled with her time studying and working in Oklahoma, allowed her to see the impact of the Indian Child Welfare Act on children with tribal heritage. Those combined factors led her to apply for a job with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe in Pottawatomie County.

Protecting tribal youth

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was a watershed moment for tribes in the U.S., effectively halting the centuries of government-backed separation of Native American families. At its base, the act requires states that take any child out of a home for their own welfare to notify the tribe of which they’re a member. Tribal entities established as a result of the act, known as ICW departments, can represent the child’s interests in courts across the U.S. and seek to have them placed in a home with ties to the tribe. Rather than placing tribal youth into a foster system with no connections to their tribe’s heritage, Native nations have the ability to find relatives or even other tribal members that can serve as foster or adoptive parents.

In recent years, organizations like the Goldwater Institute have sought to overturn the federal law in court. Citing the law’s unfairness of prioritization of tribal citizenship over placement in foster care and adoptive homes, critics claim the law’s effectiveness has passed and question its necessity.

Draper, with her own extensive experience as an ICW staffer for two tribes, vehemently disputes the assertion.

“These children have a culture, and they need to have part of their heritage. I kind of put it like where if you know a child is adopted. There’s a missing link there,” she said.

In the mid-1990s when the law was still relatively new, advocates fought an uphill battle to receive notification when tribal children were placed in the foster system as required by the ICWA’s statutes.

“The biggest thing that I see now with the laws is that more people are familiar with the Indian Child Welfare Act — more of the state courts and agencies are familiar with it,” Draper said. “It’s become easier than at that time 20 some years ago. It was still relatively new, and no one followed it.”

After two years with the AST, Draper received a call from the ICW director at Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He knew of her work with the nearby tribe. Draper, who used to look out of her AST office at the Citizen Potawatomi buildings on the other side of a dividing fence, took the job offer.

“If we could just jump the fence we’d go there,” Draper remembered. “It was like this was the land of opportunity.”

It worked out in the end. In 2018, she marked her 21st year of employment with CPN. Since 1997, organizational changes have come quickly.

“I think there was about 200 employees. So, everything was on a smaller scale, and everyone knew one another, and it was a lot of fun to just fit right in,” she recalled. “Here, it is like home away from home.”

Today, CPN boasts more than 2,600 employees.

Citizen Potawatomi ICW grows

During her time with CPN, the landscape facing Tribal youth in the community has also changed. Despite more resources and staff, the issues Draper’s ICW staff confronts are more pronounced in some ways.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I would love to go back to those days of just having to deal with people that are alcoholics or smoking marijuana,” she said with some exasperation.

For the past decade, the rise of potent narcotics like methamphetamine left children in Draper’s charge without parents and family support. More recently, the rise in opioid abuse only further burdened states, municipalities and tribes seeking to care for children and families impacted by the drug epidemic.

In Oklahoma, methamphetamine is the leading cause of overdose deaths, followed by the pharmaceutical oxycodone.

“It’s so much harder to get off of those drugs now than getting somebody to grow out of smoking or drinking too much,” Draper said.

Draper also noted a troubling rise in mothers and fathers addicted to these powerful substances.

“Instead of doing a treatment plan, it seems it is easier for them to say, ‘Hey, take them. Take our kids. We don’t want them,’” she said. “They’ll just walk away and never look back. That’s the saddest thing that I’ve seen.”

Draper said the crackdown on opioid and pharmaceutical abuse led to another epidemic — heroin.

“It’s here. It’s in Shawnee, and it’s harder to catch because people can function better on heroin than they can methamphetamine. It’s a crazy drug, and it’s just a vicious circle,” she said.

Along with law enforcement officers and court staffers, the members of the CPN Indian Child Welfare Department deal with these circumstances each day. The small staff of eight has surprisingly little turnover. Some now work with parents who were once children in their system. As discouraging as that may sound, the employees in ICW seem to take their lead from Draper, who is up front about the circumstances she sees.

Her strategy is to be unfailingly honest in the situations they confront. She cited a recent example of a mother who failed a drug test at a wellness check-in.

“I said, ‘Lay it out on the table. We don’t care what you’ve done. We’re here to help you. We want you to raise your child. We don’t want to take your child and try to find someone else to raise them,’” she said.

That honesty applies to the children, too. Through no fault of their own, they face the worst days of their lives at a very young age.

“I think it’s vital that they’re told the truth. It doesn’t do any good to lie to a kid. You need to tell them, ‘You’re not going to get to go home.’ And I think it’s important to tell them, ‘You’re not going home and this is why,’” Draper said.

In circumstances where the children have no control over what happens to them, and police walk a parent out the door, Draper believes the truth is the only thing that they have. Even if it’s the most painful thing they’ll hear.

“Because these kids need a voice, they need someone that will be honest with them,” Draper continued. “I feel that that’s the key ingredient. I believe that a child, they may not like the truth — they may get mad at you. Most of them do,” she said. “But in the end as they grow up, the truth will help them in the long run.”

Given the tensions that her job can lead to, Draper became a certified police officer. Though she does not wear a uniform, she and many of her staff can carry firearms. She also serves as a reserve officer for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Tribal Police Department.

“Well, it gives me a sense of security, being armed. I let people know that I’m a police officer, and I’ve not had any problems with it at all,” she said.

With the support of the Tribal government, she made the ICW department a key partner in showing families they serve that community law enforcement is not the enemy. Partnering with local agencies in Pottawatomie County, ICW hosts an annual Foster Kids Family Fun Day on the Tribal powwow grounds where police and sheriff’s deputies interact with the public. Many of CPN ICW’s clients and families attend.

Looking back at more than two decades of work at CPN, Draper says she is extremely proud of how her staff has grown into their myriad of responsibilities.

“I have a great staff. The people that I have working in my department that do Indian Child Welfare are all on call 24/7,” Draper added. “Our clients have our cellphones. They’re able to call, and that’s a huge difference in our department here with the Potawatomi.”

She credits this, in large part, to the support of Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett and Vice-Chairman Linda Capps.

“We have success stories, and so that makes it all worth it,” Draper said. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and their leadership.”

Find out more about CPN’s Indian Child Welfare Program at cpn.news/icw.