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Drawing blood

Adoption | A 30-year-old law to protect Native Americans puts adopted children who've never set foot on a reservation at the mercy of Indian tribes

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

At Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, Chris Moore, 11, lines up on a long-jump pit partly shaded by shimmering magnolias. His parents, John and Terri, watch from behind a chain-link fence.

Step . . . step . . . step . . . sprint . . . leap. Sand sprays up around Chris' landing and his parents burst into applause. "Great job, Chris! Great job!" his dad yells.

The boy trots over to the fence and-there's really no other way to describe this-sparkles. Green-eyed, freckle-faced, ears poking through his strawberry-brown hair, he twines his hands through the links and grins as he reports his personal best: "Three-three-nine!"

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That Chris belongs to the man and woman on the other side of the fence is signified right on his sky-blue warm-up pants, where the name "Moore" is embroidered across his left thigh. No big deal to most kids. But to Chris, being a Moore is everything.

Six years ago, when his last name was Bybee, police found Chris, then 5, and his brother Anthony, 4, in an apartment in Compton, Calif., an L.A. borough notorious for gangs, crack, and murder. The apartment was a hovel: no electricity, no running water. The toilet had overflowed and the bathtub was filled with clots of tissue and a suspect mix of murky liquids. The boys slept on cardboard boxes after their mother left them there with strangers, who, when she did not return, called the police.

The following month, in July 2000, John Moore, a Long Beach, Calif., screenwriter and his wife Terri, a second-grade teacher, opened their home to Chris and Anthony, who is dark-haired, olive-skinned, and shyer than his brother. When the boys became their foster kids, "we fell in love with them immediately and they quickly became attached to us," Mr. Moore said. "They began calling us Mom and Dad after about three to four weeks."

A month later, when no relatives had come forward to claim the boys, the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) began assessing the Moore's home for what seemed a fast-track adoption. The Moores were overjoyed. But six months later, they say, race-matching, political correctness, and the chilly indifference of social-services bureaucrats nearly ripped a fledgling family apart.

That's because Chris and Anthony are descendants of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska Indians. That means they're subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a 1978 law that gives federally recognized Native American tribes near-complete sovereignty in adoption decisions involving children with Indian blood-even those who, like Chris and Anthony, have never had a moment's prior contact with their ancestral tribe.

Like many child welfare laws, ICWA began with good intentions. In the 1960s and '70s, American Indian children were roughly six times more likely than other kids to be removed from their family homes and placed in foster care, according to an April 2005 General Accounting Office report. Such removals resulted from a "lack of understanding of tribal cultures and child-rearing practices by state child welfare agencies and courts."

The federal government recognizes 562 tribes, each of which has a different "blood quantum" (a specified amount of tribal blood) requirement for membership. Congress intended ICWA to protect Native American families from unwarranted removal of their children, give tribes a role in making child welfare decisions, and preserve their social and cultural standards.

"ICWA protects the right of Indian children to tribal resources, to own property, to run for tribal office, and learn the roles of traditional clans," said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

But Lisa Morris, administrator of the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare (CAICW) and an ICWA critic, points out that Indian children adopted by non-Indian families retain the same rights. ICWA, she said, enables tribal governments to interfere in custody battles between parents, overturn county decisions in favor of the tribally enrolled parent, and for even part-Indian kids with a non-Indian family ready to adopt them, delay placement while tribes attempt to gain custody instead.

That's what happened to the Moores. Six months passed and the Moores surrounded Chris and Anthony with friends, family, and church activities. Social workers were encouraged by the rapid bonding between the Moores and the boys. Meanwhile, no other blood relative had come forward and any "relative preference" that might have applied under California law had already expired.

Then, in December 2000, Chris' grandmother surfaced. She had had no prior relationship with the boy but told DCFS workers that she wanted custody of him. Only Chris, though-she did not want Anthony.

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