From sibling to parent: that was the choice Autumn Adams made when she was just 19 years old. To keep her family together and maintain their Native American cultural identity, the 2020 CWU graduate sought and gained legal guardianship of her sister, Kaya Tahmalwash, then 7, and her 11-year-old brother, John Adams III.
“I knew I would be able to give them the best home they could have, with the most stability, and the greatest chance they could have to survive,” Adams said of her decision.
Growing up in Toppenish, on the Yakama Indian Reservation, Adams lived in foster care, poverty, and an environment of substance abuse. Her mother left the family during Adams’ senior year in high school, which left her as the primary care-giver for her two siblings.
A couple years later, while Adams was attending CWU, she secured legal custody of her sister and brother. That process initiated a profoundly different family dynamic.
“I had to transition from sister and confidant to parental figure 24-7,” she explained. “People had concerns about my ability to take care of my siblings. However, I had always taken care of them, so that was second nature to me.”
Adams, 23, has been supporting Kaya and John since that day. Over the past year, due to COVID-19, she had to take on the additional role of teacher, which provided an opportunity to teach her siblings the importance of self-advocacy.
“Advocacy was very foreign to me,” Adams acknowledged. “I never wanted to talk about the things that I went through because then I became the ‘foster-care girl.’ But I realized that I provided a better future for my siblings because of my story and that I could motivate others to do the same.”
Her own advocacy efforts have included an internship with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides Congress with information about adoption, foster care, and child welfare. Adams served on a 12-member COVID-19 task force, where each member developed child welfare policy recommendations related to foster care and the pandemic.
“I do the work that I do, not for the attention or for the accolades,” Adams said. “I do it to make a change in a [foster care] system that is severely broken.”
Her proposal was one of two that were presented to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. Based on her recommendations, the Children’s Bureau released federal guidelines and clarification on kinship caregiver funding.
For her devotion to family and advocacy efforts, Adams recently received the 2021 Casey Excellence for Children Kinship Award from Casey Family Programs. Two years ago, she also was named one of five Champions For Change by the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth.
Adams earned her CWU bachelor’s degree in anthropology last June and now works for Yakama Nation Cultural Resources. She plans to start law school next fall.
Reflecting on her long list of accomplishments, Adams said, “I’m doing it to set an example for my brother and sister. They see everything I do firsthand, and I don’t want them to think they can’t do something because of their background.”