Tuesday, April 30, 2019
By Kevin Abourezk
Nora Boesem sat before the doctor, nervous and fearful about his medical opinion.
She didn’t know what was wrong with her three foster children, ages 2, 3 and 6. She only knew something was wrong.
The doctor informed Nora and her husband Randy that the children suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a disease Nora very little about. And the doctor offered the Newell, South Dakota, couple some personal advice.
Give the children back while you still can, he told them.
The Boesems didn’t heed the doctor’s advice. And more than a decade after receiving it, the couple has cared for nearly 160 foster children, nearly all of them from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum.
But they’ve also experienced pain as a result of their efforts, having lost their 15-year-old son to suicide. The Oglala Lakota teenager suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“I don’t want to bury anymore of my kids,” she said.
Boesem believes she can help other children suffering from the disease that took her son, as well as provide hope for those parents struggling to imagine a future for their sons and daughters.
She wants to establish a trauma and healing center in Whiteclay, Nebraska, for children living with FASD.
The Hope Healing Center would provide diagnosis and treatment for children suffering from FASD, which is a neurological and cognitive disorder caused by prenatal consumption of alcohol. It would do so just two miles from a Native community wracked by the effects of the disease, as nearly one out of every four children on the Pine Ridge Reservation is born with FASD.
Despite that, Boesem wants the Lakota people to know they aren’t the only ones struggling to fight the disease. Every nation and every race is seeking solutions to the problem.
“It’s not an Oglala Lakota problem,” she said. “It’s not a Native problem.”
At a meeting last week in Lincoln, two activists who enlisted Boesem’s help four years ago in their fight to close four beer stores in Whiteclay spoke to Nebraska tribal leaders about the Hope Healing Center.
John Maisch, a documentary filmmaker and former Oklahoma liquor regulator, and Winnebago activist Frank LaMere spoke in Omaha and Lincoln at various events last week, seeking support for the center.
Maisch and LaMere led efforts to shut down four beer stores in Whiteclay, a movement that led to the closure of those stores on April 30, 2017, by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. Prior to their closure, the four beer stores had sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer annually, primarily to residents of the nearby dry Pine Ridge Reservation.
Maisch said the Hope Healing Center would turn a place of “death of destruction” into a place of “hope and healing.”
Boesem and a nonprofit called Whiteclay Memorial, which will serve as the umbrella organization for the healing center, are seeking to purchase 5 acres in Whiteclay that once served as the home for Lakota Hope Ministries, a former street outreach program that closed recently.
The current owners of the property have given the healing center’s supporters until June 3 to come up with $150,000 to buy the land and buildings on it.
“That’s the easy part,” said Alan Jacobsen, a Lincoln roofing company owner who ran for governor in 1994.
The hard part, he said, will be establishing the healing center once the land is purchased. But he said he has confidence in Boesem to create a program that will serve as a model for other FASD diagnosis and treatment centers.
Boesem, who has a master's degree in social work and is a qualified mental health professional, serves as the director of the Family Services Department for Catholic Social Services in Rapid City, South Dakota.
She said she plans to incorporate Native healing methods into center’s treatment program. She said boosting the self-esteem of children with FASD will be a primary goal for the center.
Many FASD children simply don’t understand their own self-worth, and that insecurity tends to spike during their adolescent years as they become more aware of how different they are from other youth, Boesem said.
She said her son, Donovan, often expressed feelings of loneliness and isolation prior to committing suicide.
Deb Evensen, who works with FASD children and their parents in Alaska, said treating children who suffer from the disease also helps communities heal from the trauma of chronic alcoholism and the hopelessness that causes it.
LaMere said that while parents of FASD children must be held accountable for causing the disease, alcohol peddlers also need to be considered culpable for contributing to the misery of alcoholism and FASD.
He said building a healing center in Whiteclay for children with the disease would be a significant step toward making reparations to the Lakota people.
And he urged Boesem to move forward with the idea.
“You have moral authority,” he told her. “Nobody’s going to give it to you. It means nothing unless you do something with it.”
“You make everybody pay attention over there.”