Nicole Walksalong has special expertise in the area of foster and adopted children, a knowledge that comes from beyond her formal education.
She’s the adopted mother of twin girls and her own mother was adopted into a white family as a child. The family raised her mother on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which later allowed Walksalong to stay connected to her culture.
Walksalong's intimate knowledge on the topic of adoption and fostering children is part of the reason she will help to define a newly created position within Yellowstone County's Court Appointed Special Advocates.
"The important thing to remember is that you're not saving these children," Walksalong said. "You're helping them."
Walksalong began in October working as CASA's Indian Child Welfare Act program coordinator. Part of her job is helping programs like the Center for Children and Families and Child and Family Services, understand the cultural background of Native American children.
About 40 percent of the county’s foster children are Native American, Walksalong said. CASA hopes to reduce the number of Native American children in foster homes and connect more Native American families with resources to help them through the foster care system.
She’s also working with county Judge Rod Souza to establish what would be the fourth special ICWA court in the nation. The court is scheduled to begin taking on cases in July 2017.
Congress passed ICWA in 1978 in order to keep native families and tribes together. The act requires states to place native children removed from their families with relatives or other tribal members.
Taking children from Native American families without their consent goes back to when trains would run through reservations picking up children and shipping them to boarding schools to be educated, Walksalong said. Tribes lost much of their culture when that generation of children was taken.
There are some cultural differences with Native American families, Walksalong said. It’s normal for multiple generations to live in a household, and older children are taught to look after their younger siblings, she said.
“These aren’t signs of neglect,” Walksalong said. “It is part of a child’s education.”
Many Native American families feel like they’re often misunderstood when dealing with dependent or neglect cases, she said. The special court could be a more relaxed place where families can discuss what is happening in their homes.
The changes would be small. Things like scheduling the court in the afternoon to help with travel time from the nearby reservations and having the judge sit at the table with parents rather than speaking from the bench, Walksalong said.
She is reaching out to Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes to see what they need and what they are struggling with when it comes to members of their tribes in foster families.
While in high school, Walksalong worked with children in the foster care system at Watson Children’s Shelter in Missoula. The shelter provides short-term care for children who have been abused, neglected, abandoned or whose family is in crisis.
She was awarded a full scholarship to Rocky Mountain College. After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, she began working for New Day, a private nonprofit working to improve the lives of troubled youth, particularly Native American kids.
“My heart is with kids,” Walksalong said.
It was through New Day that Walksalong met her twin daughters. The girls had been placed in 19 different homes before she adopted them. Their last placement had been with Lavonna Bird, who was arrested in 2012 after killing a boy she was fostering along with the girls.
Walksalong was an ideal parent for the girls, having worked before with children who suffered huge traumas. Her husband is also an enrolled member of the Crow tribe, and able to help the girls continue to connect with their culture, Walksalong said.
She encourages Native American families to foster Indian children, or be a CASA volunteer. Even if a family can't adopt a child, the foster system needs more Native American advocates working for the children in the court system, Walksalong said.
“It takes a lot to adopt, and you have to give them a certain type of love, because you’re taking in children you didn’t get a chance to raise, to mold,” Walksalong said. “But to me, they’ve always been my kids.”
Walksalong’s mother, Lonette Keehner, was adopted as a child from her Blackfeet family. Keehner and her two siblings were the first set of triplets born to the Blackfeet tribe in recent history. Keehner and the surviving sister were adopted by a white hospital nurse after the two got sick soon after their birth. Their brother died in the hospital.
That experience had helped Keehner bond deeply with Walkalong’s two adopted daughters.
“They started calling their grandparents grandma and grandpa, before they called my husband and me, mom and dad,” Walksalong said.
Keehner was murdered on Dec. 21, 2015, in Missoula by Scott Austin Price. Walksalong struggled to help her children through another painful loss. She said her grief overcame her for a time, before realizing she needed to help herself before she could help others again. She entered therapy to help her process what had happened.
When Keehner’s side of the family met to spread her ashes in Glacier National Park, Walksalong’s daughters were included. The two girls wear a piece of their grandmother’s jewelry every day in memory of her, Walksalong said.
The tragedy of her mother’s death brought her daughters closer to their family in many ways, she said.
“If we look at our old ways, our traditions say all children deserve a home,” Walksalong said. “All children deserve a family.”
The last three informational sessions this year for people interested in becoming a CASA will be at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 16 and Dec. 14 as well as an evening session at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 1. All informational sessions will be held at the CASA offices located at 1201 Grand Avenue, suite five.
For more information, people can visit the Yellowstone CASA website.