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Bradley and Rachel Goodsky said they have improved themselves since social workers in Duluth took their three children away because of their drinking. But the American Indian couple came forward publicly to say that no matter what they do, they fear their children will be put up for adoption.

"That's been the plan from the beginning," Bradley Goodsky told a mostly sympathetic audience at Mystic Lake Casino on Wednesday. "It's like [child protection] has a crystal ball and we're doomed to fail."

Goodsky was one of the speakers to address federal administrators who are considering making it more difficult for social workers to put Indian children in foster care. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is proposing new rules that it says will strengthen the Indian Child Welfare Act, the 1978 law passed by Congress to stop the "often unwarranted" breakup of Indian families.

The act provides guidelines to child protection agencies and juvenile courts that set a high standard for placing Indian children into foster care, and it gives tribes a say in those cases. The proposed changes would raise that bar even higher, by requiring that child protection and the courts first determine if a child is Indian, and then only remove that child from a home where there is "present or impending risk of serious bodily injury or death."Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Interior Department assistant secretary who leads the BIA, is touring the country with other agency officials to hear from tribes and the public about the proposals.

"Guidelines are great," Washburn told the group at the casino in Prior Lake. "We need things that are legally enforceable."

Though Indians make up fewer than 2 percent of Minnesota's child population, they account for at least 17 percent of all children in foster care, state records show. The overrepresentation of Indian children in the foster system is the largest of any state, according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Washburn said that disparity needs to be addressed.

"One could imagine that poverty may play a lot into that disparity," Washburn said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "You have a fairly wealthy non-Indian community [in Minnesota] and yet tribes struggle deeply with poverty. Even well-intentioned people could look at the child in the tar-paper shack on a reservation, and think, 'I can find a better home for that child.' But that's exactly what ICWA was designed to prevent."

If the changes to the act are implemented, it would keep more Indian children connected to their communities and out of foster care, he said. A critic of the proposed reforms, adoption attorney Mark Fiddler, said that would put the rights of parents and tribes above the best interests of the children.

"The new guidelines come out and say that [the] child's best interests are not an independent consideration. This is appalling," he said. "Just ask Sierra." Fiddler was referring to Sierra Holt, who was also at the meeting and told the group: "I have been devastated by ICWA."

She was placed in a foster home at age 7. Her foster parents, Eugene and Carol Campbell, tried to adopt the girl, but were denied by the state Supreme Court in the 1990s because they were not Indian.

Now 31, Holt told the group at Mystic Lake that she had lived in 27 different foster homes and that 13 times she had tried to run back to the Campbells. She dabbled in Satanism and dated a teenager who tried to kill the Campbells. Carol Campbell is paralyzed as a result of the attack.

Despite that, the Campbells still adopted the girl.

"I am proud today to be Sierra's mother," Carol Campbell told the room.

But those voices were far outnumbered by speakers who told stories about the damage caused to Indian children by being separated from their culture.

"Native adoptive souls have been stolen," said Gio Cerise, who was just 2 weeks old when adopted into a non-Indian family in 1965. "Our souls cry."

The proposed ICWA changes are also supported by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which said they would reduce the "disproportionate number of American Indian children in the system."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs hopes to put the changes into place by the end of this year, Washburn said.

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626

Foster care by race

Rate of Minnesota children in foster care, per 1,000 children, in 2013:

81 American Indian

22 black

5 white

Source: Department of Human Services, Star Tribune analysis