Take a Village 

A Burundian woman's struggle to keep her kids, in America

Christiana Niyonzima at New Heart Christian Ministries International, a primarily African congregation in Boise. Niyonzima has not seen her kids since July.

Nathaniel Hoffman

Christiana Niyonzima at New Heart Christian Ministries International, a primarily African congregation in Boise. Niyonzima has not seen her kids since July.

Sitting on a couch in her sparsely decorated Meridian apartment, Christiana Niyonzima clutches a Christmas photo of her six kids and a drawing her youngest daughter sent her through an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare caseworker.

The drawing depicts a stick figure of a girl flying in the clouds with the inscription, written by an adult: "[Girl's name] pretending to fly. Mommy watching."

"I think ... I am not sure if they are safe or not," Niyonzima said through an interpreter. "But I know they think of me sometimes."

Niyonzima, who came to Boise in late 2006 with five children and pregnant with her sixth, had already led a difficult life, growing up in refugee camps in Tanzania. Originally from Burundi, Niyonzima, 32, said that her family was killed in the fighting there, forcing her to flee to Tanzania at a young age.

She later fled an abusive partner in one refugee camp, landing with her children in another camp. She did not have electric lights or flushing toilets and only had very basic schooling.

But no matter the difficulty of life in the refugee camps, Niyonzima says now she never would have left if she had known what would happen to her children in the United States.

About a year after arriving in Boise, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare took Niyonzima's children away from her and placed them in foster care. And in July 2009, a judge terminated her parental rights, placing her six kids into adoption proceedings. She has not seen them since then.

"I'm very sad," Niyonzima said in English. "I'm not dead, and I'm not crazy," she continued in Kirundi, the national language of Burundi and the only language in which she is fluent. "I don't know why they did that."

Court records in the case are sealed, as they are in almost all termination of parental rights and child welfare cases in Idaho, and Health and Welfare will not comment on specific cases. But Boise Weekly spoke extensively with several people familiar with the case, including Niyonzima, in order to piece together what happened to her.

Jody Schneider was one of the first people to meet Niyonzima upon her arrival. Schneider was a volunteer with World Relief, the refugee resettlement agency that facilitated Niyonzima's move here. Niyonzima and her five kids stayed with Schneider and her husband for a few days until an apartment in Boise was ready.

Schneider said she helped the family four to five times a week, and sometimes more, taking Niyonzima shopping and playing with her kids. Eventually Niyonzima, who was a devout Christian in Africa, asked to go to church and Schneider took her to Common Ground Covenant Church in Meridian.

At the church--a small evangelical church described as a place for people who don't like church--several other families, including the pastor, Tom Bowen, began to assist Niyonzima as well.

At first, Niyonzima was thankful for their help, though she was not sure exactly how to respond. When the pastor and three women from the church came to her house and asked her how they could help, she responded, "How can you help me?" rather than ask them for money or anything specific.

As Niyonzima recalled, they offered to take the older kids and teach them English. Niyonzima consented. But the next thing she knew, the families had taken all of her kids, including the baby, who was still nursing, Niyonzima said.

"The people from church, they were like my family," she said. "Back home, people in the church would come and help with a good heart."

The chronology of events after she first allowed the kids to be taken is not totally clear, but several times, Niyonzima said, she found herself demanding her own kids back, screaming on the phone, "Give me my babies."

At one point, the families helped her move to Meridian to be closer to the church, but that also moved her farther away from the small Burundian community in Boise. Niyonzima began to suspect the church members' motives as they constantly criticized the way she disciplined the children, undermined her in front of her children, discouraged her from nursing the baby and twice took her to the hospital, where she was placed in the mental health ward.

"I didn't know that the medicine they gave me was for crazy people," Niyonzima said. "I felt so bad about it, and I wished that there was someone there to tell me why I took the medicine."

Pastor Bowen said that they helped her for as long as she asked for help and then backed off.

"Christiana had approached our church in helping with her kids, and then when she had asked us to no longer do that, we really weren't involved," he said, stressing that it was individuals from the church, not Common Ground, providing the assistance.

"We followed every channel of legal responsibility and civic responsibility. We are not in a position where we can make decisions for other people's children," Bowen said. "When we got to the point where that got beyond individual opinion ... without hesitation, we turned to the legal channels that were necessary to handle that."

In late 2007, about a year after she arrived from Africa, child protective services began to investigate Niyonzima, after reports from either the church families, the hospital, or others. By the end of the year, the state removed all of the children from her care, and placed them with several families affiliated with Common Ground.

"They needed to be removed when they were removed. Whether it needed to be permanent or not, I can't say," Schneider said. "I do know when they did take them away, that was the right thing to do. We were all afraid for the kids' safety."

Schneider said Niyonzima left the kids alone and that her home was not a good place for them to be.

Neither Schneider nor Bowen have custody of the kids now, though Schneider said they are doing well and that she sees them occasionally at church. To protect the privacy of the children, BW did not contact the foster families.

In late 2008, another church came into Niyonzima's life when a couple who had been sent from Oregon to start a new church in Meridian knocked on her door. By their account, the first thing she said was that someone had stolen her children and she needed help getting them back.

"Their big case against her is that she is mentally incapable of taking care of her children," said Christina McMillan, a woman from Oregon who met Niyonzima through the tiny Meridian branch of her church, the Potter's House Christian Fellowship.

McMillan, who first contacted BW a year ago to discuss the case, has pored over thousands of pages of documents, personally arranged and paid for several witnesses in Niyonzima's parental rights termination trial and continues to push her case at a national level. She has filed at least two federal civil-rights complaints against Idaho health providers for failure to provide adequate interpretation, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating, according to letters McMillan provided.

If those charges are substantiated, they could call into question the validity of her psychological diagnoses and land the case in federal court.

Health and Welfare's Bureau of Facility Standards has already agreed that Niyonzima received inadequate help from interpreters at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and the agency's Medicaid certification bureau reported to McMillan that psycho-social rehabilitation sessions at Mountain States Group, which provides services to many refugees in Boise, were done in large part without interpreters, through pantomime.

Staff at St. Al's even remarked to the Health and Welfare reviewer that Niyonzima reported hallucinations--at the urging of her church friends--but when an interpreter was eventually called in, it turned out she was complaining of nightmares. (Niyonzima is not named in the Bureau of Facility Standards review, which is posted on the agency's Web site, but the dates and circumstances match her case. St. Al's has since improved its interpretation services to the state's satisfaction.)

While Health and Welfare has only had a handful of refugee child welfare cases, Region IV Program Director Steve Sparks said it is always their priority to keep children with their parents. Of 5,548 child welfare cases in the fiscal year ending June 2009, there were 355 adoptions and a third of the adoptive parents were relatives, Sparks said.

Idaho has a higher rate of keeping kids in their extended family than other states, and it's the direction that many experts would like states to move in.

"My general philosophy is that the best way for anyone to help children in crisis is to help the family," said W. Warren H. Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., and an expert in family law. "To the extent that people want to help, they best help by strengthening a family, not by destroying it."

Binford was not aware of Niyonzima's case, but said that while Burundians may view letting kin care for their kids as a positive thing, in the United States, it's seen as a great act of parental irresponsibility. And she said that even mental illness is a cultural construct.

"Even mentally ill people have children all the time, and are able to care for them," Binford said.

Kathy Tidwell, director at the Child Welfare Center at Boise State's School of Social Work and founder of Tidwell Social Work Services, which works with Boise's growing refugee community, said that federal child welfare laws provide strict time limits for terminating parental rights.

If children are in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the case goes to termination.

"For many refugees who come here not speaking English, who come as women from countries where the expectations of women are very different, who have trauma histories ... 15 months may not be enough time," she said.

But 15 months is also a long time for kids, long enough to forget their mother tongue and even lose the ability to communicate with their parents, Tidwell said.

"Knowing who you are ethnically and culturally is very important for identity formation," she said.

Tidwell is working with Health and Welfare to recruit a more diverse pool of foster parents, including refugee foster parents, though Sparks said recruitment is difficult.

Sparks, speaking in general about child welfare cases, said caseworkers are able to separate families struggling with poverty and cultural adaptations from those struggling with keeping their children safe.

"It's the abuse that we're concerned about, irrespective of their culture," he said.

Niyonzima and her advocates maintain that accusations of neglect against her were misconstrued and even twisted. She has appealed the termination of her parental rights to the Idaho Supreme Court and still hopes to win back her children.

"There is a lot of things that they are missing, that I can tell them," Niyonzima said of her kids. Things about their home and culture. "How we walk, how they should behave in this country and the way they should walk as far as God is concerned."

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