Choosing the Good Life: Bob Scabby and Indian Placement


The courtroom was only partially filled the afternoon Bob Scabby and his three brothers were to appear before the judge. Those who had come as spectators were seated together at the rear of the room. They were all relatives of the three Cheyenne Indians waiting for their hearing to begin.

“All arise,” intoned the court clerk. As the judge entered in his black robes, Bob felt nervous; so much depended on the outcome of today’s hearing. He recalled vividly the hopeful looks on the faces of his three younger brothers when he had first told them of his legal efforts to remove them from the Children’s Home and have them placed with Latter-day Saint families.

“Be seated,” said the clerk. The judge cleared his throat and began to speak. “It was about ten years ago that the matter of the Scabby children first came before this Court. Because of the inability of the parents to care for their children I made the decision at that time to temporarily place all seven children with the Children’s Home. Subsequent hearings were held and it was determined that the placement of most of the Scabby children with the home should continue indefinitely. Now a representative of the family, Mr. Robert Scabby, has come before the Court to ask for a change in placement. …”

Bob felt a heaviness as he reflected on what had happened to his family. Times were difficult for Indians in western Oklahoma in the late 1960s, with industry and jobs virtually nonexistent. Even Indians fortunate enough to work for local farmers barely survived. The Scabbys, like other Indians in Hammon, Oklahoma, were hopelessly poor.

The difficulties of those times were aggravated by increased efforts of government social welfare agencies to control the widespread social problems in Hammon and other areas of the trust lands. Alcohol and drug abuse were among the ills that had attracted the agencies’ attention. Case workers visited many Indian homes, including the Scabbys’. And since Bob’s father had turned increasingly to alcohol when farm jobs slackened with plummeting market prices and hints of a recession, the workers recommended removing the children from the detrimental influences of their environment. The seven Scabby children were placed in the Children’s Home.

Bob’s parents were told that they could not regain custody of their children until the father had stopped drinking; the judge instructed them to return in six months for another hearing. Half a year later, the Scabbys returned to court. Bob’s father had stopped drinking and once again asked for the release of his children.

The judge ruled that an additional six months’ probation would be necessary before the children could go home. Bob’s parents begged the judge to reconsider; reluctantly, he agreed to release two of their children. Bob and his sister Vera were selected because they were the oldest and could best help to care for their mother, who had suffered a mental breakdown. The other five youngsters remained at the home.

Six months lengthened into a year, and still the judge did not release the children. Bob’s mother drifted into the advanced stages of severe emotional illness, resulting in her commitment to a mental hospital. His father began to drink again, and eventually died.

At home, Bob spent many hours trying to sort out the knot of problems his life had become. He attended junior high school and witnessed the steady deterioration of his community as alcohol and immorality took their toll.

Mormon missionaries were working in the Hammon area about the time Bob returned from the Children’s Home. He had previously listened to the gospel discussions, but had never desired to join the Latter-day Saint church. Still, his younger years had brought some pleasant experiences with the elders, and their church was one of several he had attended as a child. Now, troubled as he was, Bob decided to listen to the missionary lessons once again.

“I finally joined the LDS Church,” he told some friends a few years later, “because I knew that’s what I had to do to keep on going. Everything the elders told me hit home. They taught me about the commandments and I got committed to keeping them. I joined the Church, and so did my sister.

“I was in Oklahoma City later when someone asked me why I didn’t go on the placement program. I didn’t know what it was, but they told us about it and said if they got enough students they would start placing Indian children in Colorado. I was very interested.”

A few months later Bob was sent along with about fifty other Indian youth (including his sister Vera and a cousin) to LDS placement homes in the Denver, Colorado, area.

“The first three months of adjustment were so hard that I wanted to go home,” said Bob. “I had to adjust to a new style of life, a new culture. Where I had come from, growing up was more or less like free-lancing—anything goes. But on the placement program, you had to conform to a pretty self-disciplined type of life. I went to early morning seminary, got up every morning at 5:00 A.M.—and I wasn’t used to that. All my friends were dropping out of the placement program, and they wanted me to come, too.” Out of that group of fifty, nearly thirty left their foster homes within the first few months.

“When my sister and cousin went home, it was the hardest thing that ever happened to me. There I was, fifteen years old, all alone, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’

“But then I started to remember what one of my ninth-grade basketball coaches used to tell us. He said we should never quit, that being a quitter marks you with a stigma. So I decided to stay. No matter what happened or how bad it was, I wasn’t going to quit. In three months all the problems blew over and I began to enjoy the program and started getting to know my foster family. They weren’t too overbearing, and they were very easy to talk to. I loved the atmosphere. Maybe the Lord knew that I would fit in with that kind of a family. They provided me with some security and stability. At the end of the school year, I knew I would be back the next year.”

Bob graduated from high school in Denver. During his three years with the Felix Deschane family, his thoughts were often with his own family. As the oldest son, he felt responsible for them: “I saw the placement program, and I saw the orphanage. I knew then that I wanted the placement program for my brothers and sisters.

“When my one brother and two sisters graduated from high school and were able to leave the home, it was like they were loose from chains; they hadn’t had much of a chance to develop moral strength, and they went in all the wrong directions. The LDS placement program, on the other hand, gave me my free agency. I was always aware of evil influences, but with proper teachings I was able to make choices. My sister and brothers never had that choice. That’s why I wanted to get them out.”

Bob’s graduation from high school was followed by his enrollment at Brigham Young University. He completed his freshman year and returned to Oklahoma. At that point he faced a critical decision—whether or not to serve a mission for the Church. “I was alone, there was no one to encourage me, and I wavered. But then I remembered a statement my foster mother once made that really made me stand tall. A placement worker, I believe, was asking her if she thought I would ever stray from the Church. She said, ‘Well, everyone else might leave the Church, but not Bob. We’ll leave the Church before he will.’ I stood ten feet tall. I thought about that as I was considering a mission—and I knew I had to live up to it. Once I made up my mind, nothing could stop me.”

While working at three different jobs to obtain enough money to serve a mission, Bob worked with local church leaders to obtain assistance in removing his brothers Bruce and Terry from the Children’s Home. A snarl of legal knots kept him from making any progress before his call to the Arizona Holbrook Mission. Matters were still unsettled when he returned home in 1975.

After praying for guidance, Bob called President Wiley Callister of the Oklahoma City Stake, who suggested that he contact the Missouri Agency of LDS Social Services. The agency director promised his assistance; meanwhile, Bob and his relatives in Hammon had pooled their resources to obtain legal counsel.

At the end of a long struggle to get his day in court, Bob now found himself on the witness stand, speaking from his heart. He reflected on his experiences with LDS Indian Placement, as a missionary, and as a student at BYU:

“Thanks to the Indian Placement Program of the LDS Church, I was able to experience family life, including loving guidance from foster parents who treated me like one of their own children. There would have been no other way for me to get out of my family situation. Because of the teachings of my foster parents and the LDS Church, I was able to decide for myself to live a good life. It has made a real difference in my life—and now I want this same kind of opportunity for my brothers Bruce, Terry, and Everett.”

After long minutes of cross-examination and deliberation, the judge ruled that the boys would be placed with LDS Social Services in Missouri, the nearest state where the Church had a placement license. Bob knew then that his months of effort and sacrifice had been worthwhile.

In close cooperation with the agency and dedicated foster parents, Bob Scabby has stayed close to his family members and continues to watch over and help guide their progress. His own temple marriage to his Pima-Maricopa wife, Deanna, and the joy he finds in their three young children have given him the peace and security that eluded him as a youth.

Indian Placement and a Change of Heart

By JoAnn Jolley Assistant Editor

Four years ago the Church commissioned a private consulting firm based in Salt Lake City to conduct an opinion survey concerning attitudes toward the Church’s Indian Student Placement Program. Workers interviewed a total of 1,315 individuals. Those interviewed represented Indian tribes from throughout the United States, with focus on those from the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Results indicate that “a significant majority in all categories tend to have ‘good feelings’ towards the placement program. [Approximately] 93 percent of the parents, 92 percent of the current students, and 78.5 percent of the tribal leaders, 87 percent of the LDS college students have ‘very good’ or ‘good’ feelings toward the program.”

The survey report suggests that “important spiritual and educational goals are more likely to be realized by Indian Placement participants than by non-participants. Participants are more likely to have graduated from high school and to have completed some college training, and those 25 years of age or older are more apt to have graduated from college. According to data furnished by parents, children who participate in the placement program are more likely to have completed a mission for the Church and to have married in the temple than are children who do not participate.”

This is encouraging to Church leaders and members who believe the placement program has a potential for assisting the Lamanite people to achieve their prophetic destiny.

Among those deeply affected by the survey was Brother Ken Brown, a Navajo Indian. In the beginning, he had his doubts about the value of the Indian Placement program. But he has since changed his mind.

Brother Brown was raised in a large family on a reservation in New Mexico. Three years after his marriage (to a returned sister missionary, also a Navajo), he joined the Church while pursuing a graduate degree in social work at the University of Utah.

His first introduction to the Indian Student Placement Program was in working as a graduate student trainee in the Salt Lake Indian Student Placement Office in the summer of 1974. But, he recalls, “I just couldn’t see an Indian child going to another home, splitting up the natural family. And I said, ‘I can’t be a part of this.’”

The Browns eventually moved back to New Mexico, where Ken was active in the Four Corners area district presidency. Yet his limited experiences with the Placement Program continued to be negative. “In one family who had three or four children on placement, both parents were working. I thought, ‘That’s not right, having your children raised by somebody else while you work, not having the responsibilities.’ I remembered from my own experience how important it was to be with my own family.”

During the winter of 1979, Ken’s wife Gladys, was asked to join the survey team. “I helped her interview some of the families and students,” reflects Ken. “That was what started to change my mind—actually hearing from the families, the tribal leaders, the students themselves. I interviewed families in which the parents had been on placement and they have their children on placement now. Almost without exception, they saw it as a very positive experience.

“From then on, I had to ask, ‘Now, how do I really fit into this picture?’ I know, as I read the Book of Mormon, that there is a day coming for the Lamanites, and it’s got to come. But it’s not going to come if people like me are just sitting back and waiting for it to happen. You get involved.

Today, Brother Brown is an Indian Placement caseworker with LDS Social Services in Ogden, Utah, overseeing the activities of some eighty Indian students living in foster homes in North Davis County.

Brother Brown has observed that “most of these children could probably never make it educationally without the placement program. But we can give them these educational and spiritual opportunities. In my work, I try to help the students stretch as much as they can.”

For his own “stretching,” Brother Brown is grateful to those who shared with him the vision and blessings of Indian Placement.

[illustrations] Illustrated by G. Allen Garns

[photos] Whether it’s studying the gospel, playing, or walking to school, Delphine Ashley seems to be enjoying her stay with her foster family. (Photography by Eldon Linschoten.)

J. Neil Birch, an LDS Social Services worker, is assistant ward clerk in his Sandy, Utah, ward.

John A. Forster, a staff writer for the Deseret News, teaches Sunday School in his Salt Lake City ward.