Indian Takers

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Enacted in 1978, that law allows tribes to assume control over certain custody matters involving Native American kids. Congress created the Act after alarmingly high numbers of Indian children were taken from their families and placed into non-tribal foster and adoptive homes, where they often lost touch with their cultural heritage.

The law covers only children who belong to any of the 562 tribes officially recognized by the U.S. government, or those eligible for membership in one of those tribes.

Raven Laws is about 5 percent Indian, according to genetic testing that the Bessingers commissioned last year (at a cost of about $7,000, according to court records).

But the Cherokee River Indian Community isn't a recognized tribe. It explains on its Web site (www.cric.org) that it isn't "a social club or a tribe, but a community of American Indian people who desire to build a better life for themselves and their children."

That alone should have spelled the end of any legal intervention by the community in Raven's case at the Maricopa County courthouse. Also, Raven Laws' natural parents have no known connection with any Indian tribe, recognized or not.

Undaunted, the Alabama group "enrolled" the little girl on November 15, 2006, the day after Judge Flores had ordered Raven's immediate return to Walters. More important, nothing stopped the two Native American women representing the group from taking Raven.

According to Steve Bison, a former Phoenix resident who is the CRIC's director of emergency services, school superintendent, court clerk, fire chief and, yes, head horse trainer, the community numbers about 60 people who live on private land in north Alabama's Lawrence County, about 1,700 miles from Arizona.

He says the Cherokee River community has its own constitution, bylaws, volunteer fire department, tribal council, and court system.

"We're legitimate," the affable Bison tells New Times by phone. "We just want what's best for Raven, and that's the honest truth. I was shocked when the ladies went in and picked up that little girl. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. It was an administrative error, and we're sorry for that."

Bison says his group got involved in the Laws case because of the Bessingers.

"We learned about the situation and did our homework," he says. "I went out to Arizona to the [Bessingers'] home and spoke with the kids there, to get a feeling of how they were being treated. It went from there."

The Native American women kept Raven at a west Phoenix home for two days, until police tracked her down on the evening of January 24 after getting a tip.

The girl was unharmed, and authorities immediately returned her to her mother in Apache Junction.

Brenda Byers and Iva Marie Badoni, both Phoenix residents, were charged with kidnapping and custodial interference.

The media soon went away.

But the profound issues raised during this quirky case decidedly did not.

If history is any indicator, the odds of Shelly Walters holding it together — staying off meth, keeping a job, and following through on CPS services — may be slim.

She is a twice-divorced 40-year-old (she and Marty Laws never married) whose drug troubles often have overwhelmed her ability to adequately parent her three children, Raven and two teens.

But Walters has fared surprisingly well since getting Raven back from the Bessingers in November, according to available child-welfare reports.

As for the Bessingers, they also have much to answer for, especially their role in Raven's kidnapping. But at heart, they seem to be guilty mostly of having exercised poor judgment about their evolving role in Raven's life.

"It is clear that Raven is well-cared for and very much loved by [the Bessingers]," an attorney appointed as a court adviser in the case told Judge Flores last year.

But, as the judge recently noted, "the Bessingers are not the parents. It is not an equal situation. They are not on equal footing with the mom."

The judge made a critical distinction.

Arizona and federal law make it difficult for judges to terminate parental rights, even when a case involves parents who seem unfit to care for anything.

The entrenched concept of "family preservation" means child-welfare officials must make "reasonable efforts" to give natural parents every opportunity to win back their children.

For example, on November 14, the same day Flores ordered Raven back into the custody of Shelly Walters, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed termination of a mother's parental rights involving her two children.

A trial judge had ruled earlier that the mother showed "poor parenting skills, poor decision-making and inadequate protection of children."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin