CIRI shareholder Sharon Padilla and her husband, Perry, were settling happily into life as empty nesters. Their only child, a daughter named Sarah, was in her early twenties and enrolled in college. Both had steady, long-term jobs with the Federal Aviation Administration – she as a logistics management specialist and he as a National Airspace System operations manager. When Sharon received an email in 2008 “out of the blue” asking her if she would be interested in adopting her cousin’s granddaughter on her mother’s side of the family, she was taken aback – at that point, she had been unaware of the little girl’s existence.
“My mother was the eighth of 13 kids and I didn’t know all my aunts and uncles,” Sharon explained. “This was the great-granddaughter of my mom’s oldest sibling. I knew very little about that side of the family.”
The email came to Sharon from Terri Corey, a CIRI shareholder who works as an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) coordinator/behavioral health aide for the Native Village of Eklutna. “It was sent to my sisters and me. I asked my husband, ‘What do you think?’ We decided at that point that we needed more information before making any kind of decision,” she said.
Sharon is connected to CIRI through her mother, the late Virginia Nickita-Call, and her grandmother, the late Delia Nickita-Stephan of Knik, Alaska. She is a lifelong Alaskan of Dena’ina Athabascan descent.
The child, a little girl named Aniya, was living in foster care in Redding, Calif. “The California social workers basically tried to slam the door on us, but through Terri Corey being so tenacious, we were able to meet Aniya,” Sharon said.
A federal law that seeks to keep Alaska Native and American Indian children with Alaska Native and American Indian families, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 in response to the high number of American Indian and Alaska Native children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies. A new federal regulation that went into effect in late 2016 put legal force behind federal directives for implementing ICWA.
A disproportionately high number of Alaska Native children account for the state’s out-of-home foster care placements – roughly 55 percent, though they account for only about 20 percent of the state’s overall child population. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nationally, Native children are 2.5 times more likely to end up in state foster care than white children.
“ICWA is such a controversial law, and not everyone was in favor of Aniya moving with us to Alaska,” Sharon said. The non-Native family who was fostering her was especially opposed, as was the California Department of Social Services. Sharon said she is grateful to those who advocated on her behalf. “Terri Corey helped me intervene in the court case in California. Knik Tribal Council ICWA worker (and CIRI shareholder) Geraldine Nicoli-Ayonayon helped me identify resources to help cover expenses. And California Indian Legal Services assisted us as well.
“ICWA workers have a tough job,” Sharon continued. “They hear so many stories of abuse and neglect and deal with fractured families, but they’re our warriors for our children in so many ways.”
Aniya arrived in Alaska in September 2009 and was formally adopted by the Padillas in July 2011. Now a busy and active 10 year old, she is a talented soccer player and recently spent the day at CIRI as a participant in the company’s Take the Next Generation to Work Day.
Though she maintains full-time employment and a busy family schedule, Sharon still finds the time to serve on CIRI’s Shareholder Participation Committee (SPC). With the goal of better increasing two-way communication between CIRI and its shareholders, the SPC advises CIRI on specific issues and activities identified by committee members, the corporation and its shareholders and descendants. Sharon joined the SPC in October 2015.
“Because I get so wrapped up in issues around adoption, I thought I needed an outside interest,” she said. “As a member, I’ve really encouraged people I know to register their descendants because there are so many opportunities available to them (through CIRI). I was really excited for Take the Next Generation to Work Day for Aniya. We need to bring in more shareholders and young people and get them involved.”
Aniya’s adoption by the Padilla family “was a real journey,” Sharon said. “It came with its challenges, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. People sometimes say she’s lucky to have us, but if she were truly lucky, she never would have needed us. Perry and I are the lucky ones to have the opportunity to have Aniya in our lives and to be her parents. I’ve truly learned more about life from her than anybody else.”
Sharon is a strong advocate of Alaska Native foster families for Alaska Native children. For information about becoming a foster parent, visit www.dhss.alaska.gov/OCS. To learn about descendant registration and descendant and youth opportunities, visit ciri.com/descendants.