When the doorbell rings at 2 a.m., Vallis Martinez isn’t that worried. It happens all the time. She opens the door and welcomes the child. No bag. No toothbrush. Just the clothes on the child’s back and a sad story — Mom or Dad was driving drunk, parents were cooking meth or hurting each other.
“They’re scared,” Martinez said. “Some are in tears screaming, ‘No, take me home.’ But I just open my arms and I say, ‘I’m here. There’s a roof here a warm place to sleep. Let Mom settle down, Dad settle down.’”
Martinez has had as many as 16 foster children at one time in her three-bedroom home.
When the children arrive, they don’t want to talk. But she shares with them her own story of abuse, and they usually open up.
“I had a foster child that came back and said that, ‘Auntie, all the clothes you bought me, my mom burned it,’ ” Martinez said. “She came back with rags.”
Martinez said the kids break her heart again and again.
“It’s where you have to make yourself strong, not to wipe your tears in front of them,” Martinez said.
Foster care families are in short supply on the Navajo Nation. About 1,200 children on the reservation cycle through foster care in the course of a year, but there are only 26 licensed foster homes.
“There are so many kids and the system cannot keep up,” said Elsie Elthie, a foster home licensing specialist on the Navajo Nation. “It used to be just alcohol, and then about 15 years ago I started hearing about meth. And that has completely destroyed families.”
Elthie has the task of finding a safe home for those kids. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act requires Elthie to place children first with family members. If she cannot find one, then she takes them to a Navajo foster family. If those homes are at capacity, then she can take children to non-Navajo families off the reservation.
“We just basically need more homes, and we need support to license these homes because the licensing procedure is lengthy,” Elthie said.
Part of the problem with recruiting is funding. Last year, the tribe did not receive federal funds for three months because of budget cuts to Health and Human Services, so foster parents had to dig into their own pockets to buy food and pay for gas. Elthie also asked for private donations.
The reason Elthie does what she does is she was once a foster child herself. She knows how severe the need is.
“We use the concept of ké,” Elthie said. “Even though they’re not my blood relatives, I’m going to treat them like they are my family.”
Martinez lives by the same belief. And it’s one she’s helping her boyfriend, Ronald Joe, come to understand.
Joe is new to foster care. He said when they first went out to a traditional Navajo social event, he was caught up with what everyone else thought of him with all these children.
“I was just shaking,” Joe said. “And we sat down and I told her, ‘People are staring at us.’ Then she told me, ‘Don’t mind them.’”
In fact whenever they’re out, Martinez seizes the opportunity to recruit other parents to foster children. It’s a hard sell because it takes an emotional toll. Joe has learned that the hard way. He helped Martinez with an infant — taught him to sit up, crawl and just when he had learned to walk, the case worker took him back to his family.
“I went down the drain,” Joe said. “It was very hard. Sometimes I dream of him.”
Being a foster parent is a difficult role, but it’s also an important one, Elthie said. And one the Navajo Nation needs more people like Joe and Martinez to take on.