'I just want to be a mother to my kids': Mother says fight for child on Spirit Lake felt hopeless
Officials say unethical handling of the case caused them to resign.
A silent tear rolled down Nina Martin’s cheek as she looked around the pink, Minnie Mouse-themed bedroom. A neat pile of toys sat in the corner and the closet was filled with tiny hangers holding up brightly colored clothes in hopes that someday Martin will again see her 3-year-old daughter.
But right now, the odds look bleak.
“At this point in time, I’m not even concerned about what I’ve been through. It’s my kids — they’re going to grow up thinking, you know, that I didn’t want anything to do with them and I’m just over here living my life carefree,” Martin said. “It’s not carefree. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my kids.”
Martin said she feels consumed by the situation — her parental rights were terminated and an adoption was finalized for her daughter last month. She said she tries not to feel hopeless, but it’s difficult.
Martin spent the last three years battling to reunite with her daughter in a system she said was set up to watch her fail. A former Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services director and juvenile public defender both resigned from their positions because they said “tribal politics” led to unethical and illegal decisions in the handling of Martin’s case.
Former Chairwoman Myra Pearson denies the allegations of council interference.
The Indian Child Welfare Act moved the case to the reservation despite Martin’s child not being an enrolled member. Officials affirmed the case should have stayed in Grand Forks County after Martin refused the services.
Martin completed her tribal social services case plan and was granted increased visitation with her daughter. Social workers planned for her to begin a trial home placement at the end of 2018, meaning her daughter would stay with her for a majority of the week.
Despite positive reviews from social workers and documented progress toward reunification, Martin’s plan was halted by court and tribal officials abruptly and with almost no explanation. Former Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services Director and ICWA Coordinator Chuck Sanderson said the motion to terminate Martin’s parental rights was unprecedented because it was not supported or brought by social workers.
But in April, Martin’s parental rights were terminated anyway. An adoption for her daughter was finalized last month in the former foster parent’s home.
Sanderson said Martin’s hearings lacked due process and the fight for her child was never fair.
Martin has tried to appeal, but Spirit Lake doesn’t have an appellate court. Judge Joe Vetsch told her to take the matter to federal court. Vetsch declined to comment on the case.
Martin doesn’t have enough money for a private attorney and it’s unclear if a decision could be reversed since the adoption is already finalized.
But she isn’t giving up hope.
'I'm not innocent here, either'
When Martin’s daughter was born on May 24, 2016, traces of methamphetamine flowed through the baby's tiny, 6-pound body. Martin knew her daughter would test positive for drugs and also knew she wouldn’t be able to help her baby until she was able to get help herself. She told social workers at the hospital she needed help getting clean and the baby would need to be placed in temporary care.
“You know, I’m not innocent here, either. I’ve done a lot of bad things, I know I have,” she said. “And I get to wake up to that every day.”
Martin became hooked on opioids after complications during a 2002 gastric bypass surgery. She hated the way the pain medications made her feel and tried to quit “cold turkey,” but the agony of the withdrawals was too much to bear without something to take the edge off. So she turned to alcohol.
“I went from having a beer to a couple of beers to like drinking hard liquor,” she said. “Yeah, I got it pretty bad. You know, I’ve never really liked drinking. I’ve always been able to control my drinking and so I never thought it would be something that would stick.”
For about a decade, Martin drifted in and out of sobriety.
She got married in 2003 and was surprised to learn she was pregnant. She has polycystic ovaries and had been told she’d never have children, but over the next decade she gave birth to four babies. Martin said none of them suffered from alcohol or drug-related ailments at birth.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2012 when her children’s dad, her longtime husband, died in a car accident.
Martin moved in with her family for help with her children.
She was working full-time overnight shifts and trying to care for her kids in the day while still reeling from grief. It wasn’t working.
A co-worker introduced her to meth and told her it would keep her awake.
“I tried it one time and it made me super mom,” she said through tears. “I can do things. I’m not tired all the time. I mean, I was there for my kids, but not emotionally, and that’s what they needed. And then it just got to the point where it just took over.”
She granted her family joint custody of her children.
“I wasn’t making the right decisions. I wasn’t doing things that a mother should be doing,” she said. “So I (granted them custody) because I wanted to keep my kids safe.”
Martin said she burned the bridges with her family. Her brother moved with her children to Spirit Lake and eventually her rights were terminated. She said her children are rightfully mad at her for her drug use but she prays she can someday mend their relationship.
“It has taken me a long time to sober up, I get that,” she said. “And I’m not asking for forgiveness, I’m not asking for anything. You know, I just want to be a mother to my kids.”
In the meantime, Martin racked up criminal charges — driving under the influence, a handful of driving under a suspended license charges, possession of drugs, theft and more.
She wanted to stop when she found out she was pregnant, but she was deep in the grips of addiction.
When her daughter was born, Martin knew it was time. She needed to get clean — her kids needed their mother.
She appeared in court about a week after giving birth, where she temporarily relinquished her parental rights to Grand Forks County Social Services until she could again become a fit mother.
A court transcript from the hearing shows the baby was to be placed into foster care in the county while social workers helped Martin form a reunification timeline. It was unclear if the child qualified for the Indian Child Welfare Act and Martin made it clear she would decline the assistance if it was proven that her child was eligible.
Martin sat behind bars from Nov. 13, 2016, until Jan. 31, 2017, as she served time on her outstanding criminal charges — the first step in her reunification plan.
Today, she’s been sober from alcohol for nearly seven years and meth for over two. She has the urine analysis tests to prove it.
'The worst mistake'
Involving the Indian Child Welfare Act in Martin’s case “was probably the worst mistake” former Tribal Social Services Director Chuck Sanderson said he’s made in his life.
Sanderson said the decision was “based on information received from relatives and also some indirect pressure from tribal council to make sure that all Indian children are returned to the tribe.” The goal is always reunification with parents, he said.
ICWA was created in the 1970s as a way to combat the disproportionate number of Native American children being placed in non-native homes. The act sets minimum standards for handling the cases and sets forth a plan and procedure with the ultimate goal of family reunification.
Sanderson said there was a lapse in communication between the tribal social services and Grand Forks County Social Services. He wasn’t aware Martin had and could deny ICWA involvement and no one but Martin caught the mistake. The child was placed in a Spirit Lake foster home July 17, 2016.
“If Nina did in fact waive her rights to have ICWA involved, then Grand Forks County should have kept the case, which would have been ideal so Nina and her daughter could both receive services in Grand Forks,” current Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services Director Erica Thompson-Cavanaugh said in a letter penned to the court on Nov. 28.
Martin, who is enrolled in the Spirit Lake Tribe, did not enroll her daughter and wanted her to remain off the reservation.
Keeping the baby in Grand Forks would have made it easier for Martin to access services that would help her maintain sobriety and make it easier for her to visit her daughter.
Sanderson noted there are fewer services for recovering addicts on the reservation than in Grand Forks.
'Out of my own pocket'
After Martin was released from jail, she got a job and rented an apartment. She wanted to see her baby.
The Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services office only had four employees and Martin was told there wasn’t enough time for case workers to help drive her to her visitations. Martin was tasked with finding a ride to the reservation, about a hundred miles west of her East Grand Forks home.
She managed to find a ride to the weekly two-hour visits.
Sanderson said Martin’s case worker was excluded from the tribe and not allowed on the reservation because she tried to help Martin. He said the “interference of council” involved in the decision forced him to resign from his position as director of social services.
“I resigned my position as director because, ethically, I could no longer be a part of it,” he said.
Pearson claims Sanderson resigned for unrelated reasons.
Martin relapsed in May 2017 after she received a notice that her rights were terminated for her oldest four children. She entered an intensive, inpatient treatment from October 2017 until February 2018.
Case reports said visitations with her daughter restarted, and also that Martin found a job and secured an apartment. She was again tasked with finding a ride, at her own expense, to the reservation for the two-hour weekly visits but managed to make it happen within a month.
She complied with probation requirements and even began voluntarily taking urine-analysis tests twice a week to provide proof to the court that she was sober. Martin paid about $84 per week for the tests and transportation to the center “out of my own pocket.”
'She has tried absolutely everything'
In September, the juvenile court presenter filed a motion to terminate Martin’s parental rights despite continued positive progress on her reunification plan through social services. Sanderson said the motion was unprecedented because social services was not consulted. He said the procedure directs that caseworkers are the ones to bring forward recommendations for terminations and the motion conflicted with Martin’s progress.
Martin continued working with tribal social services despite the motion and completed her case plan in October. Her weekly visits were increased from two hours to overnight stays at her apartment.
In November, social workers increased the overnight visits to weekend stays. The plan was to move toward weeklong visits in December, a trial home placement and eventually reunification.
The day Martin and her caseworker drove to the foster parent’s home to pick up her daughter and begin the trial home placement, they were greeted by an order from Pearson that declared the child cannot leave the reservation’s boundaries “due to the grave concerns to the welfare of the child.”
Pearson this week said she took issue with Martin’s boyfriend, although Martin said he had submitted a background check to social services and paperwork from the agency showed positive interactions between him and the girl.
Pearson maintains that “kids that are being placed should be placed within the reservation first.”
Martin’s public defender, Christina Kissinger, resigned the week before the scheduled hearing on Martin’s parental rights.
“I know that you nor any other members of the court do not and will never understand how a person such as myself has allowed herself to become so involved with her clients that having to watch them be subjected to such politics and council intervention has caused me great frustration; that is my fault since I have made the mistake of actually caring about my clients,” Kissinger wrote in her resignation letter addressed to Judge Vetsch.
“Knowing that my position is funded by the very same council that has on more than one occasion and has more recently intervened in my cases against the best interests of my clients, I feel that this has created a conflict of interest for me where I feel that I am professionally and ethically obligated to resign from my position.”
The hearing on Martin’s parental rights was postponed until March. She was notified in April her rights were terminated.
Sanderson, who was called as a witness at the hearing, said there was minimal effort put forward by Martin’s court-appointed counsel to show her progress.
“The long and short of it, again, in my opinion, I do not think Nina or her family were afforded due process — I simply don’t,” he said.
Martin informed Judge Vetsch she planned to appeal the decision, but there is no appellate court within the tribe. She would have to retain a lawyer and go to federal court, which Sanderson said could cost between $7,000-$10,000 just to retain counsel. She said the timeframe to appeal federally may have already lapsed.
Meanwhile, her daughter was adopted by the foster mother last month.
“I have rights and by them doing that, they’re basically saying that there’s no hope for me ever getting better,” she said. “... The court, especially, they preach rehabilitation, they preach this and that, but then they just made it sound like I’m never going to change. That’s the person I am and that’s the person I’m going to be.”