SIOUX CITY, Iowa — A tribal customary adoption is when the state and tribe work out an agreement to place a Native American child up for adoption, with the expectation a nontribal member becomes the new parent. This is done without severing ties with the child's tribe.
Bradley and AJ Delfs are the first people to go through this process in Iowa. They say this agreement has given them the family they always wanted.
"They've been our whole world for the last 18 months," AJ said.
After coming from large families themselves, they wanted to create their own together. The couple decided to start their journey with foster care.
"It's so awesome that we can you know, as you know, a gay couple, welcome kids into our family in our life, especially in the state of Iowa," Bradley added.
"The day we officially received our license, we got a call for a placement and it just happened to be two children from the Omaha tribe," AJ recalled.
Knowing this placement was temporary, the Delfs created a loving space for five-year-old Ava and six-year-old Johny. But as the days passed, the thought of this arrangement only being temporary became more difficult.
"In the back of your mind, you're always wondering 'Is tomorrow gonna be the day that you get the call that they're reuniting?'" Bradley said.
The day that the adoption call came, their fears of losing the kids subsided. Reunification had failed and they were offered the chance to adopt Ava and Johny.
"When we got the call that, you know, we were gonna move forward with the adoption process. It was a little sigh of relief," Bradley said.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Diane Murphy shared the need for placements of Native American children is high as historically, Iowa has had a disproportionate amount of Native children in the welfare system.
"We've had a higher number of terminations of parental rights, a higher for Indian children a higher number of removals in this area of Iowa," Murphy said.
This need is something the state, along with tribal courts, are working towards addressing.
"Through tribal customary adoption, we're able to offer a culturally appropriate permanency option when reunification with parents is not available," Murphy said.
Making sure Ava and Johny stay connected to their native roots is important to AJ and Bradley, so, they've come up with a cultural plan.
"We've done a few powwows and stuff, but the plan as they grow older is to visit the tribe at least once a month. Just so that they can interact with members of the tribe, and have a little bit of a better understanding of where they come from in that culture and community," AJ said.
Maintaining that connection is something the state and tribe both see as imperative.
"These children really have now not only maintained their heritage, their biological connection and ties and all that wonderful, rich, robust culture, but also gained, you know, the support of their adoptive family," Murphy said.
For Bradley and AJ, the gift of these two children is a dream come true.
"They are the family that we always wanted," AJ said.
The Delf family is only getting bigger. AJ and Bradley are currently fostering two children who are siblings of Johnny and Ava. They have started the process to adopt them also.
Many people in tribes say there is no word for adoption in their languages.
That's according to the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Tribes. Many tribes have no practice of terminating parental rights, which is what the customary adoption process sets out to protect.