On Wed, Apr 30, 2014 CAICW wrote the following letter to BIA officials:
Ms. Cave and the committees involved with transforming ICWA guidelines;
Thank you for allowing input concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act guidelines.
The hosts of the listening session on Thursday, April 24 stated that only tribal leaders have a stake in the ICWA and are thus the sole “stakeholders” in what happens with ICWA. I realize this is what the BIA as well as many in Congress believe.
However, tribal members who have rejected tribal jurisdiction, non-member persons of heritage who rejected the reservation system and/or have never lived under it, and hundreds of thousands of non-Indians across the nation are in fact “stakeholders” in this law – whether government wants to admit it or not.
Non-Indian stakeholders would include the non-Indian birth moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of children adversely affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act. There are hundreds of thousands of them. You can not say that these families are not “stakeholders” if they are having to fight a tribal government over rights to their own children.
And yes – we have current cases of birth family having to fight tribal governments for their own children. We had a grandmother in Colorado last month who won her case to keep her 7-year-old grandson – but would not have won without help from good attorneys. Sadly, we have a birth mother in Michigan right now who is losing against tribal court because she had no money to hire an attorney who could stand up and say the tribal court isn’t following ICWA, let alone regular family law.
When government passes a law that mandatorily gives jurisdiction of ones family to a political entity – and that law affects not just persons who have chosen to be part of that political entity, but everyone of 100% certain blood heritage – Government has approved a law based on race and has way overstepped its bounds. It gets even worse. Bad enough that many persons and families of 100% heritage are forced unwillingly into this political situation due to their race, but our federal government went further – forcing everyone down to 51% heritage to be included in the law – as well as hundreds of thousands of people with even less than 5% heritage. This means families who are predominately non-native – many of whom are unconnected to the reservation system.
Government has lost sight of the reality that 75% of those who are considered Native American do not live within the reservation system and appears to be blind to the reality that the vast majority of people affected by ICWA are predominately of non-Indian heritage. These affected children have OTHER extended family, roots, traditions, and worldviews – all equally important and acceptable.
I am speaking as a birth mother, grandmother and aunt. I am also speaking as representative of our national membership. I and the people I represent are undeniably stakeholders.
Below are some of the issues brought up by tribal officials in the listening session last Thursday. Tribal leaders are talking about ways to strengthen their jurisdiction over our children. We were very dismayed at the suggested ICWA changes.
Some of the upsetting points of change requested by tribal leaders and their attorneys are listed here. I have summarized reasons for our objections in italics.
1. ‘Make it easier to transfer children to tribal court’ – (Thus harder for families such as ours to protect themselves)
2. ‘Tribal decisions concerning eligiblity should be conclusive’ – (Dominating the feelings and decisions of the birth family, who might have purposefully left the reservation system due to prevalent crime and corruption. Parents and primary caregivers should have the final say as to whether their children are enrolled.)
3. ‘A tribal committee should make revisions to the guidelines and those guidelines should become binding law.’ – (Despite the legislative record, which shows that the guidelines were never meant to be binding. Further – ALL stakeholders should be invited to the table, not just those who have a financial and power stake in having possession of our children.)
3. ‘Make it easier for kids to be eligible. Allow for combining the heritage from two different tribes to help a child reach eligibility.’ – (We are obviously talking about children here who are primarily of non-native heritage. Are tribal governments grasping at straws to keep control over other people’s children?)
4. ‘Require complete ancestry charts for BOTH parents’ – (No tribal government has any right to see my ancestry chart. I am not a tribal member – they have no right to demand any of my personal documents or a right to inspect my lineage.)
5. ‘Eliminate all language referring to “delay” being a problem, the advanced stage of proceedings, or the undue hardship of transferring to tribal court.’ – (OUR children have a right to be respected and protected. There are laws in every state limiting how long a child must wait for permanency BECAUSE it is well documented that children have an emotional need stable and permanent homes as soon as possible. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, our children are no different from any other child in America. It is extremely racist to claim that OUR children are somehow different than other kids and do NOT need permanence as early. What this is essentially saying is that it is okay if children of heritage have their lives disrupted and pulled apart – it doesn’t matter how long they cry or pine for the people they knew and loved best – because they are not as important or valued by our government as other children are. Our government is willing to deeply hurt our children simply because they have Native American heritage. Does the government consider them not as worth protecting as other children?)
6. ‘No more talk about a child not being connected to the tribe – as if the child isn’t “Indian” enough. Eliminate use of the Indian Child Doctrine nationally.’ – ( It is extremely racist for tribal governments to claim that they know my child, who they have never met, better than I do – and that it is more important for my child to be connected to the tribe than it is for my child to have a permanent, safe, and stable home. It is extremely offensive for Tribal leaders to make racist statements like this – completely denying the rights and feelings of non-Indian families as well as Indian families who have purposefully distanced themselves from the reservation system.)
7. ‘Acknowledge that a parent who has not had custody is still a parent with continuing custody.’ – (Would this acknowledgment apply to non-Indian parents as well? Will the government consider the non-Indian mother in Michigan as one with ‘continuing custody,’ even though the tribal court has ripped her 13-yr-old daughter away from her – against the daughter’s wishes? Or is the suggestion that only non-custodial parents of tribal heritage will always be considered a custodial parent? Why? Does the U.S. government continue to view U.S. citizens of native heritage as somehow incapable? Is there an underlying racist notion that parents of heritage are somehow different than their non-native counterparts – despite the vast majority of citizens of tribal heritage living average, mainstream lives off the reservation? To many parents of heritage who choose to live outside of Indian Country, it is offensive that our government continues to pigeon hole people. Further, to non-native parents of eligible children, it is appalling anyone would suggest the other parent be considered to have had custody simply due to a percentage of heritage. Parents without custody are non-custodial parents, period.)
8. ’24-months isn’t long enough for some parents. ex – One dad wasn’t the one with custody because most young children are raised by the mothers and so it is not his fault. He wasn’t responsible for the current situation and needs more time.’ – (The best interest of the child – the need for permanence, safety and stability – needs to be of utmost importance. The needs of Dads who haven’t been in the picture – many times by choice, although they might regret it later – must be secondary. Our society needs all parents, no matter the heritage, to be responsible and accountable, not blaming. We need to make the emotional needs of individual children priority and quit making excuses for adults who should know better.)
9. ‘What one culture deems normal, another culture might not.’ – (This is true. But many ICWA workers seem to ignore the cultural norm an individual child has been raised in – as well as ignore any other heritage of the child – for the sake of the culture tribal leaders and ICWA workers deem necessary and solely important. This appears to happen even when a child has been completely raised and feels comfortable in an alternate culture. Among many ICWA workers, there appears to be a complete disregard and even antagonism for the equally good and acceptable cultures many children living outside of the reservation system have been comfortable with.)
10. ‘States should be required to give the tribal gov’ts a list of all their licensed foster homes so they tribal gov’t can identify preferred families.’ – (Foster families have a right to privacy. This expectation and demand is frightening.)
The following are a list of proposed ICWA changes we would like to see:
1. Children of tribal heritage should be guaranteed protection equal to that of any other child in the United States.
a) Children should never be moved suddenly from a home that is safe, loved, and where they are emotionally, socially and physically comfortable simply because their care-givers are not of a certain heritage. The best interest of the child should be considered first, above the needs of the tribal community.
b) State health and welfare requirements for foster and adoptive children should apply equally to all. If there is proven evidence of emotional and/or physical neglect, the state has an obligation to that child’s welfare and should be held accountable if the child is knowingly or by Social Service neglect left in unsafe conditions. ( – Title 42 U.S.C 1983)
2. Fit parents, no matter their heritage, have the right to choose healthy guardians or adoptive parents for their children without concern for heritage and superseding wishes of tribal government. US Supreme Court decisions upholding family autonomy under 5th and 14th Amendment due process and equal protection include Meyer vs. Nebraska, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and Brown v. Board of Education.
3. The “Existing Indian Family Doctrine” must be available to families and children that choose not to live within the reservation system.
a) In re Santos Y, the court found “Application of the ICWA to a child whose only connection with an Indian tribe is a one-quarter genetic contribution does not serve the purpose for which the ICWA was enacted…” Santos y quoted from Bridget R.’s due process and equal protection analysis at length. Santos also states, Congress considered amending the ICWA to preclude application of the “existing Indian family doctrine” but did not do so.”
b) In Bridget R., the court stated, “if the Act applies to children whose families have no significant relationship with Indian tribal culture, such application runs afoul of the Constitution in three ways:
— it impermissibly intrudes upon a power ordinarily reserved to the states,
— it improperly interferes with Indian children’s fundamental due process rights respecting family relationships; and
— on the sole basis of race, it deprives them of equal opportunities to be adopted that are available to non-Indian children and exposes them…to having an existing non-Indian family torn apart through an after the fact assertion of tribal and Indian-parent rights under ICWA”.
c) In re Alexandria Y., the court held that “recognition of the existing Indian family doctrine [was] necessary to avoid serious constitutional flaws in the ICWA” and held that the trial court had acted properly in refusing to apply ICWA “because neither [child] nor [mother] had any significant social, cultural, or political relationship with Indian life; thus, there was no existing Indian family to preserve.” Question: If current ICWA case law includes many situations where existing Family Doctrine has already been ignored, then have serious constitutional flaws already occurred?
4. United States citizens, no matter their heritage, have a right to fair trials.
a) When summoned to a tribal court, parents and legal guardians, whether enrolled or not, have to be told their rights, including 25 USC Chapter 21 § 1911. (b) “Transfer of proceedings [to tribal jurisdiction] …in the absence of good cause to the contrary, [and] objection by either parent…”
b) The rights of non-member parents must be upheld: for example; 25 USC Chapter 21 § 1903. Definitions “Permanent Placement” (1) (iv) “shall not include a placement based … upon an award, in a divorce proceeding, of custody to one of the parents.
c) Non-members have to be able to serve county and state summons to tribal members within reservation boundaries and must have access to appeal.
d) Under the principles of comity: All Tribes and States shall accord full faith and credit to a child custody order issued by the Tribe or State of initial jurisdiction consistent within the UCCJA – which enforces a child custody determination by a court of another State – unless the order has been vacated, stayed, or modified by a court having jurisdiction to do so under Article 2 of the UCCJA.
5. Adoptive Parents need well defined protections. These are the citizens among us that have been willing to set aside personal comforts and take in society’s neediest children. Adoptive parents take many risks in doing this, the least of which is finances. People build their lives around family. Adoptive parents risk not only their own hearts, but the hearts of any birth children they have as well as the hearts of their extended family. These parents have an investment in the families they are building and have a right to know that they can put their names on the adoption paper with confidence. If we, as a society, continue to abuse these parents, we will find fewer people willing to take the risk of adoption and more and more children will languish in foster homes.
6. A “Qualified expert witness” should be someone who is able to advocate for the well being of the child, first and foremost: a professional person who has substantial education and experience in the area of the professional person’s specialty and significant knowledge of and experience with the child, his family, and the culture, family structure, and child-rearing practices the child has been raised in.
7. Finally, if tribal membership is a political rather than racial designation, (as argued) than is it constitutional for the definition of an Indian child to include “eligible” children, rather than “enrolled” children?
a) 25 USC Chapter 21 § 1903. Definitions: (4) ”Indian child” means any unmarried person who is under age eighteen and is either
b) member of an Indian tribe or
c) is eligible for membership in an Indian tribe and is the biological child of a member of an Indian tribe;
1. Tribal governments have been given the right as sovereign entities to determine their own membership at the expense of the rights of any other heritage or culture as well as at the expense of individual rights.
2. ICWA does not give Indian children or their legal guardians the choice whether to accept political membership in the tribe. Legal guardians have the right to make that choice for their children, not governments.
3. Non-member relatives are being told that these children are now members of an entity that the family has had no past political, social or cultural relationship with.
4. So IS it then the blood relationship that determines membership? Bridget R., stated, “If tribal determinations are indeed conclusive for purposes of applying ICWA, and if, … a particular tribe recognizes as members all persons who are biologically descended from historic tribal members, then children who are related by blood to such a tribe may be claimed by the tribe, and thus made subject to the provisions of ICWA, solely on the basis of their biological heritage. Only children who are racially Indians face this possibility.” Isn’t that then an unconstitutional race-based classification?
5. Keeping children, no matter their blood quantum, in what the State would normally determine to be an unfit home on the basis of tribal government claims that European values don’t apply to and are not needed by children of tribal heritage is racist in nature and a denial of the child’s personal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
6. Even with significant relationship with Indian tribal culture, forced application of ICWA runs afoul of the Constitution in three ways: (1) it impermissibly intrudes upon a power ordinarily reserved to the states, (2) it improperly interferes with Indian children’s fundamental due process rights; and (3) on the sole basis of race, it deprives them of equal opportunities to be adopted that are available to non-Indian children.
Thank you for listening to all the stakeholders – including us.