Born of History: A Tulalip Youth’s Journey to Indigenize Child Welfare | This article is the third in a three-part series exploring a young person’s journey through a tribal foster care system and into a life of advocacy — as well as the challenges a family and the Tulalip Tribes confronted. Read parts one and two.
Hundreds gathered earlier this year at the Tulalip Tribes’ annual General Council meeting. Young couples pushed babies in strollers. Elders wore ribbon skirts made of silk and satin, jeans, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo ties. Some attendees showed up in T-shirts. “WTF: Where’s The Frybread?” read one. Another boasted a red heart and the words “Rez Life.”
Tribal members streamed in and out of the Washington state casino’s ornate Orca Ballroom, marine-themed and decorated in the tribe’s signature black, red and white. Massive steel sculptures of salmon depicting the Tulalip Tribes’ livelihood hung overhead.
Andres “Dre” Thornock wore a dark gray suit and a pressed white button-up. Their hair, neatly shaved at the sides and pulled into a short ponytail, framed a hopeful but weathered face for a 23-year-old. Thornock, who is Two Spirit and uses they/them pronouns, appeared before the seven-member elected council with a specific goal: Better oversight of beda?chelh, the tribe’s child welfare system.
The name beda?chelh is a Lushootseed word that means “our children.” It is pronounced “buh-DAH-chuh” and is also spelled bədaʔčəɬ, using the phonetic symbol “ʔ.”
At the time, Thornock was secretary of the beda?chelh advocacy committee and the first former foster youth to serve on the panel, they said. Beda?chelh steps in when parents are accused of abuse or neglect. Under Tulalip tribal codes, the advocacy committee is “charged with reviewing case issues as specified by and at the request of the parent or guardian.” Committee members are expected to “make recommendations to beda?chelh on ways to proceed in accordance with law and policies.”
Thornock joined the committee in 2022, after returning to live with relatives on the tribe’s reservation, following 15 years in and out of foster care. The majority of the time away was spent off Tulalip ancestral land, in the home of a white, Christian foster family.
Thornock reported feeling increasingly unsafe in that family home after they began to articulate early understandings of their Two Spirit identity. Within a year, the guardians revoked their legal arrangement with Thornock, who was then 17. So they re-entered foster care yet again, this time as a young adult with benefits that could be used for independent housing.
Thornock immediately turned to Indigenous people, and found shelter and meals with long-lost relatives and friends from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. They now live with family members on the Tulalip reservation.
“Whether we see things from the same perspective or not, we’re proud of our young people when they fight for what they believe in.”— Tulalip Tribal Chair Teri Gobin
In August, Thornock was voted in as chair of the advocacy committee for beda?chelh, and they are aiming for higher office on the Tulalip Tribes’ board of directors.
“In order for real changes to be made at beda?chelh,” Thornock told an Imprint reporter, “we need someone with lived experience, who’s young, who understands what these kids are going through currently, to sit on the board and represent these kids.”
Moving toward change
This Imprint series, Born of History, was reported over the past 10 months. The reporting includes a four-day trip in March to the Tulalip reservation, and dozens of in-depth conversations with Thornock by phone and videoconference. It also includes a review of thousands of pages of court files and interviews with multiple members of Tulalip Tribes, Thornock’s kin, attorneys, tribal officials, judges, social workers and academics.
Beda?chelh’s stated aim is to provide “integrated services promoting family and cultural preservation, health and resiliency in its children and families.”
And it has expanded its programs since Thornock was young. The Family Intervention Team launched in 2020 to help any Tulalip family with their children on or off the reservation — from “a single pregnant mother or a family dealing with a rebellious teen,” according to a recent article in the Tulalip News.
Social workers “bridge a gap that a family might be experiencing, a hardship — whatever that may be,” employee Lena Hoeflich told the news outlet. If there’s a report of a child riding without a car seat, for example, “we can come in and ask if we can educate them on the necessity of a car seat. Can we provide them with a car seat? We can ask, what else do they need? Do they need groceries? Do they need help paying bills?”
But on the receiving end of citizens’ input, Thornock said the child welfare program is also the source of dissatisfaction among some of Tulalip’s more than 5,000 tribal members who object to the ways they’ve been treated by beda?chelh and the courts. Common themes involve relatives who feel they weren’t given the chance to foster and adopt, and parents distraught because they can’t visit their kids. Foster children, when their issues surface, complain they were removed far from their tribe and community.
Tulalip leaders declined to discuss complaints about beda?chelh services. But in a series of questions that included requests for comment on Thornock’s unique advocacy role, Tulalip Chair Teri Gobin gave a nod to the next generation.
“Our children are the hopes and dreams of our ancestors, and they will carry our tribe into the future, which means they become warriors and activists from a young age,” Gobin said in an emailed statement. “Whether we see things from the same perspective or not, we’re proud of our young people when they fight for what they believe in.”
“The government structure was designed to fail us and to suppress us as a people. But once we are able to recognize that is the root of all of our problems, we can move toward change.”— Andres “Dre” Thornock
Gobin also said Tulalip leaders “frequently evaluate all of our programs, including beda?chelh, to improve them for our people. We also know that we can always do better no matter how well we’re doing.”
Thornock is not naïve about the torturous history the tribe was forced to contend with, or the lasting harm of colonization and the toxic legacy of boarding schools — all of which cause deep wounds to the tribe and its families. But therein also lies hope, they added.
“The government structure was designed to fail us and to suppress us as a people,” Thornock said. “But once we are able to recognize that is the root of all of our problems, we can move toward change.”
Early political wins
When it came time to vote at the March 11 General Council meeting, Thornock’s motion to expand the advocacy committee’s authority — by revising its bylaws — had been denied. Tribal officials tabled the motion on a technicality, noting that the committee couldn’t vote to bring it to the council in the first place since it hadn’t been passed by a quorum of the five members.
The vote fueled Thornock’s ongoing frustrations. For most of the nearly two years they’ve served on the committee, there hasn’t been a quorum, which has hindered members’ ability to vote.
“We are supposed to be mediators,” Thornock said. “But right now it just feels like we’re screaming at a brick wall and not able to get anything accomplished. Our committee has no authority to be impactful in the lives of these families.”
Another problem is a lack of data. Tribes need to keep data on outcomes to directly receive the biggest pot of federal child welfare funds. Thornock is acutely aware of that fact. Angelique Day, an associate professor for University of Washington’s School of Social Work, said collecting statistics can be costly and time-consuming for cash-strapped tribes.
At the same time, it’s necessary.
Thornock has requested data from the tribe, but said they have yet to receive figures on family reunifications, children’s placements on and off tribal land, and the number of tribal foster homes, among other statistics.
Advocating for new laws
Despite these frustrations, there’s been a notable momentum to Thornock’s political career.
Beginning at age 17, between 2018 and 2020, Thornock worked as the Everett chapter lead of The Mockingbird Society, a nonprofit serving foster and homeless youth.
Leah Nguyen, a former program manager, said Thornock drew on personal experience to understand the needs of foster youth and their families. And they were not afraid to speak up, Nguyen noted, even when pointing out blind spots to higher-ups.
“I was so impressed with them speaking truth to power in that way because I was a supervisor a couple rungs up the ladder,” she said.
“When we get young leaders like andres stepping up to the plate, we’ve got to water that so it grows.”— GRANDFATHER LES PARKS, FORMER TRIBAL BOARD VICE CHAIR
Thornock also advocated for two pieces of successful statewide legislation, work that included testifying before the Washington Legislature, distributing fact sheets and meeting with lawmakers. House Bill 1219, which became law in 2021, expanded the right of children and young adults in foster care to be represented by an attorney.
Thornock was part of the team that helped draft that bill, and once it was passed, served on the committee to make sure the legal representation indeed improved. The bill’s final language called out “systemic racism” in Washington. “The legislature further finds that Black and Indigenous children and youth and other youth of color are much more likely to be removed from their parents’ care, placed into foster care, and remain in the child welfare system longer than White children,” it states.
A second bill Thornock lobbied for, House Bill 2607, made it easier for foster and homeless youth to obtain a state identification card, lowering the cost to $5.
Grampa guides the way
Last year, Thornock began volunteering for the Tulalip Youth Council. They launch each meeting by swirling sage smoke under a blue and white dreamcatcher and an eagle feather. Discussions are guided by a list of principles on a dry-erase board: Active Listening, Practice Equity, Be Respectful, Show Forgiveness and Have Accountability. The final message seems particularly urgent: “Speak Up For Others Who May Be Unable.”
Thornock’s grandfather, Les Parks, is among the biggest supporters of this work, and has been at his grandchild’s side since the two reconnected in the last couple years. Thornock calls his elder “Grampa Les” a mentor, and an inspiration.
For the March votes at the Tulalip Resort Casino, the two ran together for separate elected seats on the board of directors for beda?chelh.
Parks, 66, previously served as a tribal board member for 15 years before being termed out. Earlier this year, he sought to regain his seat on the board of directors.
Parks had long been a major political figure within the Tulalip Tribes, and continues to push the same issues he said he fought for over 20 years ago: improving Tulalip’s child welfare system.
The tribe’s child welfare codes need long-overdue updates, he said, especially those that make it difficult for elders to take in children removed from their parents. “Grandparents’ rights,” he said, “have essentially been watered down,” among other issues he’s seen come up at every annual General Council meeting.
“I would almost rather just shut our beda?chelh program down and work through the state CPS system,” Parks said. “I’m sure other reservations are the same way, but we’re our own worst enemy here at Tulalip when it comes to placing our kids in the right homes for the right reasons to maintain their Indian identity — which is of utmost importance to us.”
Tribal law consultant and retired Judge William Thorne, who has sat on the bench in a dozen states, said these dissatisfactions are “not unusual.” In general, Thorne said, “tribal programs that treat extended family as real partners, generally experience less of this intense dissatisfaction.”
What’s more, he and other tribal experts said, promising new ways to protect Indigenous families are emerging. Thorne cited the White Earth Tribal Court’s pioneering work in “customary adoptions,” which do not require termination of parental rights; efforts by the Ute Tribe that have cut in half the number of children entering foster care; and the My Two Aunties home-visiting program based on the Rincon Indian Reservation as but a few examples.
As Thornock’s experience shows, while tribes have the authority as sovereign nations to develop their own child protection programs, colonization and its aftermath stuck Indigenous communities with deeply embedded multigenerational challenges, and insufficient federal funding to even begin to address them.
And that is what Thornock is pushing against.
As the votes were tallied at the March 11 General Council meeting, the names of the new beda?chelh board members were announced. Thornock and Parks were not among them. Thornock had struck out on a first bid. But after winning four previous races, Parks lost his fourth and final bid, by just seven votes.
Shortly after the announcement, he’d already shifted his priorities.
“This will be my last time running for office in the tribe,” he told The Imprint that day. “I’ve worked in the tribe a long time, and I feel it’s time to let the young guys and gals step up.”
Parks expressed immense pride and confidence in his grandchild’s continued advocacy work, even as he wrestles with concerns for the future.
“Are we going to even have a tribe anymore? What’s our Indian identity going to be like? What will cultural values look like? I worry about those things,” Parks said. “So when we get young leaders like Andres stepping up to the plate, we’ve got to water that so it grows.”
Thornock has questions as well, and they center on things as specific and urgent as training social workers in Tulalip ways.
“Indigenizing child welfare,” they said, “means asking: are we in tune with our culture, our values and our practices?”