INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — In an effort to move forward from a traumatic past, Maine Indian tribes on Tuesday joined forces with the state of Maine on a project to document the historic experiences of tribal children and families caught up in the state’s child welfare system.

In coming months, members of a special commission will travel to tribal communities throughout the state to encourage individuals and families to recount their experiences, with a goal of improving child welfare services and promoting healing from emotional and spiritual pain.

Gov. Paul LePage visited Indian Island for the first time in many years, signing his name to a document committing his administration to a truth and reconciliation process with the leaders of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes, including the Houlton Band of Maliseets, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy tribe at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy tribe at Pleasant Point, and the Penobscot Nation at Indian Island.  

Recalling his own homelessness as a youth, LePage said the project is “long overdue” and that his administration is prepared to support the work of the 18-member Maine State Tribal Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Maine Indian Tribal State Commission also supports the project.

Although there have been abuses in the past, LePage said, Maine’s child welfare program now is committed to “protecting the rights, dignity and traditions of the tribes while delivering needed services” to all children and families.

“We are one state. We are one people. And we share similar backgrounds,” LePage said. The governor said he visited Indian Island on several occasions years ago when he was a student at Husson College in Bangor, and that he spent 10 years working for a lumber company and “living among the Maliseets” in New Brunswick after graduating.

The goal of the truth and reconciliation project is threefold, according to Passamaquoddy tribe member Esther Attean of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The project will establish a common understanding of the experience of the Wabanaki people in dealing with the state’s child welfare system, promote emotional and spiritual healing, and improve the delivery of state services to children and families, she said.

According to Wabanaki tradition, “the tribe is the third parent. There is the mother, there is the father, and there is the tribe,” said Attean.  Children wrested from their homes and their culture endure a profound separation that affects the entire community, she said.

Attean said members of the truth and reconciliation commission will visit tribal communities throughout the state to take testimony from individuals and families. The group hopes to issue a report within two years, she said.

Years ago, Penobscot Nation member Denise Yarmal Altvater and her five sisters were taken from their parents’ home and placed with a non-tribal family in Old Town. Altvater, who has been working for a truth and reconciliation process for more than 13 years, said she came to the project “full of childhood memories about the abuse and torture that I suffered in a foster home for four years as a young girl.”

That abuse included ongoing sexual molestation and long overnights locked in the dark, unheated cellar of her foster home, she said.  

“We tried to tell the state what was happening to us, but no one believed us,” she said.

Eventually, the young sisters were placed in a better setting, Altvater said, but no charges were ever brought against the couple that abused them.

Altvater is working with the Philadelphia-based Friends Service Organization, the Muskie School and the Maine Indian State Tribal Commission to help others come to terms with similar experiences.

“Everyone wants to know what the goal of this project it,” Altvater said. “For me, it is about healing, education and learning. It is about changing how we do our work in the future so that every child we are responsible to protect is treated with kindness and dignity and given the best we have to offer so they will have a place that is always safe.”  

Dan Despard, director of child welfare services for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has adopted policies that aim to place children with relatives if their own parents are not able to care for them. When it comes to the children of the Maine Indian tribes, he said, those policies take on added importance.

“We really need to ask if there is a tribal affiliation or native ancestry,” he said. “Even if there is a skipped generation, we give the tribes an opportunity to support the welfare of these children.”

Despard said DHHS case workers now go through special training to “get it into their heads as well as their hearts” that the tribe plays an essential role in foster placement.  

Molly Newell, director of the human services department for the Pleasant Point Passamaquaody tribe, said the tribes “have made great gains” in recent years, working with the state to improve communication and share responsibility for child welfare cases.

“At first, the tribes were reluctant” to participate, she said. “We’ve been burned by the state so many times.” But the process has proven beneficial, she said, with the state providing funding and other forms of support in managing child welfare cases among the Passamaquoddy.

Newell said she believes the truth and reconciliation process will help.

“My hope is to get people to talk about it, so there are no more secrets,” she said.

More information about the Maine Tribal Truth and Reconciliation Commission is available online at

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at