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Rose-Margaret Orrantia Finds Purpose in Helping American Indian Foster Youth

October 29, 2013

American Indian Heritage Month 2013 Honoree

Rose-Margaret Orrantia has spent a lifetime working to help American Indian children in the foster care system. After all, helping children is where her heart has led her. And helping to place these children in American Indian homes has been her way of giving back to her community and ensuring its future.

2013 American Indian Heritage Month honoree, Margaret Orrantia.

Jim Spadoni
2013 American Indian Heritage Month honoree, Margaret Orrantia.

“I don’t know if working with children was ever my plan," says Orrantia, a 2013 American Indian Heritage Month Local Hero. "But, we (American Indians) always believe we come into the world with a purpose and destiny, and that purpose and destiny will work itself out in some way. So maybe it’s that and not an intellectual plan that you make to do something. You go where your heart leads you and that’s where my heart was always leading me.”

Orrantia is a member of the Yaqui tribe, hailing from Clarkdale, Arizona, a mining town where her father worked in a smelter and where her mother’s asthma kept her in and out of hospitals. When Orrantia was two, the family, which included her four siblings and her parents, moved to San Diego. They eventually settled in Barrio Logan, where they lived in a compound with other close relatives and with her grandmother, who instilled in her a love of education.

Orrantia–who was in the first graduating class of Lincoln High–attended San Diego State University, majoring in English. After graduating in 1962, she found her calling when President John F. Kennedy signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Nearly 3,000 young people volunteered during the first year, including Orrantia.

“JFK inspired me,” Orrantia explains. “He had just come into office and he was asking young people to look beyond their own small world and see what was out there. It sounded pretty good to me so I took off.”

Orrantia’s Peace Corps assignment sent her to Peru. She recalls those days very well, for it’s where she first began her work with children while participating in Food for Peace.

“The United States was sending food down—milk, wheat and corn products—that wasn’t getting to the people,” she notes. “Our job was to make sure the food was distributed, so we started a school program, and it was great to see the kids eating. Their health improved because they were now getting at least one good meal a day.”

After spending two years in the Peace Corps, Orrantia returned to the U.S. and found employment at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She worked in the dormitories with the young students, some of whom were in the child welfare system and were then known as wards of the court.

“That’s when I first became aware of this population of young people,” Orrantia remembers. “They weren’t called foster kids back then.”

Orrantia stayed with the Institute for nearly 20 years, at which time she returned to San Diego and joined the Indian Child Welfare Consortium, based out of Escondido. The organization, which found homes for foster children and counseled families from tribes in San Diego and Riverside counties, became her first introduction to officially working with foster family agencies.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in November 1978, so we’re coming up on the 36th anniversary of the Act,” says Orrantia. “Before the Act, American Indian children were placed anywhere, and were being removed from their homes at a much higher rate than the general population and placed in non-Indian homes. The Act was designed to stop that practice.”

As part of her work with the Indian Child Welfare Consortium, a program that eventually expanded to include handling adoptions, Orrantia made sure the Indian Child Welfare Act was carefully followed.

Orrantia and her colleagues at Tribal Start review a map of the American Indian populations of California.

Jim Spadoni
Orrantia and her colleagues at Tribal Start review a map of the American Indian populations of California.

“California is the only state where we don’t terminate parent rights,” explains Orrantia. “The tribe gets to write the order. This way the kids stay connected to their biological family. For tribal children this is even more important, because so many of them have been taken away from their communities, adopted out and lost their way. They have the highest rates of suicide due to displacement and loss of identity, which was one of the factors that precipitated the Indian Child Welfare Act. It really is a life and death issue for tribal children to stay connected to their community. We always tried to find family first. About 60 percent were placed with family. The other 40 percent were placed in foster families but they were all certified Indian homes, placed within culture.”

In 2003, the Academy for Professional Excellence at San Diego State University Research Foundation became the recipient of a five-year grant from the Children’s Bureau. The grant was used to launch Tribal STAR (Successful Transitions for Adult Readiness), a program to develop curricula and training for social workers in five counties (including San Diego and Imperial Counties), who work in rural areas with Indian youth aging out of the foster care system.

“We’ve been at it for ten years,” notes Orrantia, who is the Tribal STAR program manager. “And we’ve since expanded to work with any tribal child in the system.”

Today, Orrantia is considered a tribal elder, a privilege that brings great responsibility.

“When you get to a certain age, and if you’re well known and people respect you and respect your work, they consider you a tribal elder. There are certain things that go along with that, like getting asked at meetings to do opening and closing prayers. Being an elder means making sure that you’re always clean in body and spirit. It also means praying for the people that are going to be in the room, and that whatever is going to be talked about and taught is going to be done in a good way. Everybody who knows me and Tom Lidot (a lead trainer with Orrantia who nominated her for the Local Hero award), knows that we’ll follow the protocol. That’s what we do.”

Orrantia has no imminent plans to retire just yet, as she and Lidot are regularly requested to conduct trainings for social workers throughout the state and even across the country. Her suitcase is packed and at the ready, and her concern for children continues to give her purpose.

“The thing that’s most important is that as adults, we’re all responsible for making sure that children are protected,” she affirms. “That they’re healthy, that their needs are taken care of, and that they’re going to grow up to be responsible, contributing members of their community, whether it’s their tribal community or the larger, general community.”

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