It’s 2 a.m. in Tuba City and a police officer rings Vallis Martinez’s doorbell. Martinez isn’t alarmed. It happens all the time.
She opens the door and welcomes the child. No bag. No toothbrush. Just the clothes on his back and a sad story — mom or dad were driving drunk, parents were cooking meth or hurting each other or homeless. Martinez has heard it all.
“They’re scared,” Martinez said. “Some are in tears screaming, ‘No, take me home.’ But I open my arms, hug 'em. 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 children at one time in her tiny home. She’s also raised three of her own.
When the children arrive she said 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 came back and said, ‘Auntiem all the clothes you bought me, my mom burned it. She said, you didn’t need to be perfect,’” Martinez said. “She came back with rags. And I said, ‘No, when you go home you put those back on.’ I said, ‘we’ll get you new clothes.’”
Vallis Martinez has lost count of how many foster children she’s cared for on the Navajo Nation. She said it could be as many as 10,000.
And the Navajo Department of Family Services wishes there were more like her, because the demand for safe foster homes is so high.
The tribe places about 2,400 kids a year with relatives or foster parents.
For the last few years Martinez has had help from Ronald Joe, her boyfriend. Joe said when they first went out to a Navajo song and dance with the foster kids, he was caught up with what everyone else thought of him with all these kids.
“I was just shaking,” Joe said. “And I was sweatin’ too, even though it was cool inside. We sat down and I told her, ‘People are staring at us.’ Then she told me, ‘Don’t mind them.’”
Joe and Martinez said it’s tricky going out in public, because you don’t want to run into the biological parents. And sometimes the kids call Martinez and Joe mom and dad.
Joe has learned the hard way not to get attached though. 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.
“Man, I went down the drain,” Joe said. “It was very hard. Sometimes I dreamed of him. You have to treat them like your own, but try not to get really attached.”
Foster home licensing specialist Elsie Elthie calls Vallis Martinez a superhero. Elthie only has two emergency homes she can turn to on the western side of the reservation. The other homes are in Flagstaff and Phoenix.
“There are so many kids, and the system cannot keep up,” Elthie said. “It used to be just alcohol and then, about 15 years ago, I started hearing about meth. And that has completely destroyed families.”
The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act requires Elthie to place children first with family members. If she can’t find one, then she takes them to Martinez or another Navajo foster family. If they’re at capacity, then she goes to the non-Navajo families off the reservation.
Children on the Navajo Nation are about four times more likely to be in the foster care system compared to the number of kids in Arizona.
Last year, the tribe didn’t receive federal funds for three months because of budget cuts to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so foster parents had to dig in their own pockets to buy food and pay for gas.
“I scraped, I borrowed, I begged,” Elthie said. “‘I need some food for my families. They need clothing. Can you help pay their electric bill? Can you help bring in some wood?'”
Elthie was once a foster kid herself before the time of the federal law. A white foster mom in California cared for her and told her, "I couldn’t love you more if you were my own daughter." Elthie wanted that for other children who’d been abused or neglected.
“We use the concept of ké,” Elthie said. “Even though they aren’t blood relatives, I’m going to treat them like family. It means, even though it’s the middle of the night, even though I haven’t had anything to eat, I’m going to help them as much as I can.”
Martinez lives by the same belief. And when the children leave her home she hopes they leave knowing they are loved.