By Elizabeth Sias
In his early infancy, Harley’s mother Jody carried the boy around on her back in a “papoose,” or a Native American cradleboard.
Although now 3-year-old Harley and 5-year-old brother Franky are adopted, the papoose is just one example of the boys’ heritage they’ll learn about as they grow up.
Jody and Rich Stricker of Isanti adopted the boys in December from the Bois Forte band of Chippewa, a small tribe in northern Minnesota with about 3,000 members.
The adoption ceremony—done in Ojibwe—was the first the tribe had ever done.
Meeting Franky and Harley
Rich and Jody already had five children before adopting the boys; Jewyl, now 5; Jaycob, 14; Jordyn, 16; Kassey, 18; and Brittany, 20. Jody sometimes spells her husband’s name as “Rych,” and the family jokes that it’s the Y in all of their names that ties them together.
Before moving to Isanti in June 2009, Rich and Jody lived in Big Lake, where Jody ran a day care. The two were in a bad motorcycle accident in which Jody broke both her ankles. When she had trouble walking up and down stairs, she decided to stop running the day care and looked into something she had always had an interest in—foster care.
Because Rich has Native American roots, the Strickers were able to expedite the process to become foster parents with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families.
When they first heard about Franky, he was in an emergency foster home. The Strickers finished up their paperwork the same day they welcomed 15-month-old Franky into their home in March of 2008.
“Franky has a really tough story,” Jody said. “Sherburne County said it was one of the worst they had dealt with in a long time.”
Franky had undergone severe neglect and abuse with his biological family. When the Strickers took him in, they happened to have a vacation planned for a few days later. It was during that time that Franky’s three older siblings were taken from their mother and placed in an emergency foster home after she was discovered passed out with a blood alcohol level of .34.
Because of the abuse Franky had experienced, he was kept separated from his siblings. When the Strickers welcomed the 15-month-old into their home, Jody said she didn’t know what to expect from the little boy who had been in nine foster homes.
“When they got here, they set this beautiful little boy on the floor, and my son Jaycob reached his arms out to Franky and Franky jumped right into them. The two of them have been close ever since,” Jody said. “It’s just so remarkable that this little boy who had been through all that is so loving and wants to be loved.”
The Strickers also found out the mother was pregnant at the time and they were asked if they would foster the new baby when he arrived.
The court told Franky’s biological mother the charges on her would be dropped if she voluntarily spent the rest of her pregnancy in treatment, which she did. When the new baby was two days old, Rich and Jody drove up to St. Mary’s in Duluth to bring little Harley home on Aug. 15, 2008.
“He was just this four-pound little monkey,” Jody said. “He was so tiny.”
From foster home to forever home
Jody and Rich didn’t have the intention of adopting when they first took the boys as foster parents.
“Our thoughts were to provide a safe place for kids, either while they’re in the process of trying to reunite with mom and dad, or in the process of them finding a long-term home,” Jody said. “It never dawned on us that we would have a better home to offer than somebody else.”
Bois Forte at first didn’t support the idea of the Strickers adopting Franky and Harley, Jody said, because they like to keep children in the tribe whenever possible.
In early 2009, Rich and Jody drove up north for a court date to plead their case.
“We sat there and cried to the judge that we wanted to adopt these boys. We had desperately fallen in love with them and we wanted to give them a good home,” Jody said. “I think when the social worker and tribal workers saw how passionate we were for them, after that they were supportive and on board with us adopting.”
Once they knew the adoption would become a reality, the family decided to move into a bigger home with more space, which is how they came to live in Isanti.
A home connection to the tribe
When Jody was searching for a church in Isanti, she happened to stop at a garage sale for Elim Baptist Church.
They were taking donations to raise money for a mission trip, and when Jody asked what the trip was for, she found out that Elim Baptist works with Bois Forte.
And that’s how she discovered the church’s Pastor Ryan O’Leary is a member of the tribe. The church takes a week-long trip to the tribe every summer to work with the people in the community.
“I was just baffled because there are only about 3,000 members total to this tribe,” Jody said. “So what are the odds that the town we move into happens to have a church whose pastor is a member of it?”
She called O’Leary and talked to him about the work the church does with the tribe and about the boys the Strickers were to adopt. Jody then learned that O’Leary’s father is the cousin of Frank and Harley’s grandfather.
“We found out how they’re related and formed a really neat relationship,” Jody said. “We knew that this was God’s way of guiding us to where we needed to be. How fantastic that now the boys can grow up in a community and have that connection right back to their roots.”
Pastor O’Leary and his father came up north to Bois Forte for the adoption with the entire Stricker family on Dec. 2, 2011. There were a variety of reasons for the long span of time between their decision to adopt and there ceremony, Jody said. It was the tribe’s first adoption, and there was a lot of paperwork, home studies and adoption agreements to be completed.
Bois Forte also wanted Franky and Harley and their three older biological siblings—Sierra, Serena and Carlos—to be adopted on the same day, so both adoptive families were present at the ceremony.
The ceremony was done in Ojibwe, so Jody said they didn’t understand what was said. As part of custom, she and Rich brought four gifts for the spiritual adviser, a symbolic gesture of giving to the tribe’s ancestors.
Wild rice cultivation is a big part of the tribe’s culture. Nett Lake is a town in the community, and the lake is one of the largest natural producers of wild rice in the world. Only Bois Forte tribe members are allowed to harvest and cultivate the rice each season. As part of the ceremony, they went around giving everyone a handful of a cracker-rice mixture.
The adoptive parents stood as the spiritual adviser conducted the ceremony while everyone else sat in a circle. A judge was present at the ceremony, and she ruled the ceremony as the binding legal adoption.
Challenges of parenthood
All of the biological mother’s children were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. For Franky and Harley, it has affected their brains, but because it’s a spectrum disorder, doctors don’t know the severity.
Both boys are on an IEP, or Individual Education Plan. When they enter kindergarten, however, they’ll be in the classroom with the rest of the students most of the time.
When Franky came to the Strickers at 15 months, he didn’t walk or talk.
“A little love goes a long way,” Jody said. “We watched him do in days what our daughter would take months to do. He started talking, he started walking. He just started learning so fast. It was really neat to see him thriving.”
He was taken off his IEP for a while, but was put back on for behavioral issues.
“There’s a connection there that isn’t quite getting through for him,” she said. “It’s trying to teach him those connections.”
‘It’s worth it’
Maintaining a connection to Bois Forte will be important as the boys grow up, Jody said.
Every Father’s Day weekend, the family travels up north for the tribe’s summer powwow, and they try to visit at least once a year for Franky and Harley to visit with their biological siblings.
Once they’re older, the boys will have the opportunity to participate in the mission trip with Elim Baptist Church.
“I think it’s really important that they feel loved and wanted,” Jody said. “I remember when Franky was really little and I was rocking him, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Is anybody out there thinking about this little boy? Am I the only one?’ It just broke my heart to think that kids can fall through the cracks.”
Raising Franky and Harley has been a commitment, but worth every effort.
“If we can help just two children, it’s worth it,” she said. “The rewards they give back are tenfold. You never know what opportunities will come your way, or what you can learn from others—even really, really small ones.”