Kids, Courts, and the Indian Child Welfare Act

 

Get ready to hear much more over the coming year about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. In October, in a case called Brackeen v. Zinke, Texas federal judge Reed O’Connor ruled much of ICWA unconstitutional. Since then advocates of the law, led by Indian tribes and social welfare organizations, have been sounding the alarm: ICWA, a law representing a step toward making amends for America’s historic maltreatment of Native Americans, is under attack. (Appeal is pending.)

Some of the outcry has now been personalized into an attack on the jurist responsible for the ruling. In an unrelated December 2018 case Judge O’Connor, a 2007 George W. Bush appointee, handed down a much-criticized ruling finding the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, and online critics were soon connecting the two rulings as “activist” products of the same unreasonable hand.

But the constitutional problems with ICWA are real, and it didn’t take Judge O’Connor to spot them. While the law was aimed at remedying a genuine problem, in the course of doing so it created new problems, which federal courts including the US Supreme Court have had to wrestle with ever since. In particular, ICWA takes away some rights that parents and children would otherwise enjoy under prevailing principles of family law. And as critics of the law such as the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute point out, it does so in ways that are hard to square with principles of equal protection.

The injustices that ICWA was meant to correct were real, longstanding, and serious: states were taking children away from Native American parents without adequate justification. True, many Indian communities suffered from high rates of social dysfunction of forms hazardous to kids, so rates of child removal surpassing those of outside communities would not themselves be unexpected. But as hearings at the time showed, states had taken children away from Indian parents without fair process or convincing proof that they were likely otherwise to suffer serious injury. After being separated, children were sent to foster care or residential schools – both systems rife with problems of their own – and often to adoption by non-Native families.

(It’s worth noting that the phenomenon in which Child Protective Services agencies can raid families and seize kids for flimsy reasons and without fair process was not and is not limited to that era or to Native families. In a new book, They Took The Kids Last Night, Chicago parents’-rights attorney Diane Redleaf details horrifying episodes of this sort that continue today around the US — the whole US, not Indian country — often touched off by unreliable reports of abuse, compounded by unreliable forensics, and made worse by agencies’ presumptions of greater expertise and parents’ unawareness of their rights.)

As a libertarian who would like to keep government interference with family life to a minimum, I’m highly sympathetic toward moves that heighten the presumption against breaking up intact families. So on that front, at least if you set aside issues of federalism, ICWA would seem to be a step in the right direction, and the question is whether that same presumption might not be extended more broadly to benefit families in general.

ICWA also transferred power over placement of Indian children – more on the vexed definition of that term later – from state child welfare agencies to tribal governments. That is more controversial, since while the states may have shown themselves flawed in some ways, the tribes may prove flawed in others. Critics contend that in practice the tribes often lack both the skill and the political will to carry out needed interventions and placements for kids at risk. As in the wider child welfare system, horror stories are not lacking of death or injury to kids returned to parents’ or relatives’ care despite danger signs. Defenders of ICWA say tribes have made strides already in allying with professionals to improve their child welfare capabilities, and are likely to do a better job as time goes on.

Where ICWA is at its most controversial is when it strips away family law rights that parents or children would otherwise have had.

Consider the first dispute under the law to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1989 case of Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield. A mother and father agreed on an off-reservation adoptive placement they saw as promising a better life for their child. But under ICWA, the Court ruled, they couldn’t do that without the tribe’s permission, because ICWA required that tribes be given first access before an Indian child was placed outside Indian communities. In short, rights of choice that non-Native parents would take for granted would not be honored for them; their offspring was a resource for the tribe to conscript to improve its hopes of continuation as an institution, no matter what Mom and Dad’s views of the infant’s best interests. Famously, the late Antonin Scalia was to describe Holyfield as the most troubling case he had encountered in his years on the Court, because of the way the interests of the actual family before the court clashed with the plain directives of the law, which as a jurist he felt he had to enforce.

Personal and parental autonomy regularly counts for little in the ICWA scheme. In the Washington state case In re the Adoption of T.A.W., the mother with Indian ancestry wanted the tribe to stay out of it, to no avail. In the Oklahoma case of M.K.T., the father wanted to unenroll from tribal membership, again in vain.

When conflict divides a family, ICWA often results in doling out unequal rights to parents or family members based on lineage. Consider the second case under the law to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, 2013’s Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. A paperwork mix-up had prevented the proper notification of Baby Veronica’s unwed dad. But time had elapsed, and ordinarily that would be that: had he not been affiliated with a tribe, he would not have been in a legal position to block her adoption. Under ICWA, it seemed, there were two kinds of parental rights — a robust kind for the parent with a tribal affiliation, and a weaker kind for a parent without.

This is troublesome from an equal protection standpoint, above all because the line dividing whole rights from the skim-milk variety is based primarily on accidents of birth, bloodline, and lineage, grounds ordinarily forbidden under our Constitution. “Is it one drop of blood that triggers all these extraordinary rights?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts in the Adoptive Couple case. “It happened here because of ICWA… and it happened because of 3/256ths of Cherokee blood.” (The child had an Indian great-great-great-great grandparent on her father’s side)

One effect is to give tribal governments dangerous power over persons who never willingly submitted to their authority, including persons who have never set foot in Indian country. A couple briefly connect at a bar in Boston or Brooklyn or Baltimore one night and a child is born as a result. The father may not have mentioned at the time, indeed may only imperfectly remember, that as a child he was inducted into an affiliation with some faraway tribe toward whose leadership he has long felt indifferent or estranged. But ICWA covers as an “Indian child” any biological child of a tribal member so long as that child is “eligible for membership” in a tribe.

Sorry, Dad – and sorry, total-bystander Brooklyn Mom — but under ICWA that distant tribe now has a lot of power over your future. You are not necessarily free to make an adoption plan with some trusted member of your local community. Instead, you must submit to a distant tribal authority and prepare for the child’s possible “placement … in … homes [that] reflect the unique values of Indian culture.” What about your own cultural background as a non-Native parent, along with that of your relatives who may have been helping care for the child during his first years? Your youngster may have spent his life thus far immersed in that other culture — perhaps Korean-American, or Dominican, or African-American, or Eastern European. But the law cares not. In fact, it encourages as “ICWA-compliant” placement of your child with any Indian tribe around the country, however remote from that of either biological parent’s, in preference to any non-Native placement, however well matched to the circumstances of the child’s life thus far.

In short, ICWA elevates tribal interests over vital parental and family interests, as well as the best interests of actual children. As litigants prepare to take Judge O’Connor’s ruling up for likely review by the Fifth Circuit, it will not be easy to go on dodging these questions forever.

[author’s note: an earlier version of this piece ascribed to the Goldwater Institute an argument that should have been ascribed to other critics of the law]

Published in Domestic Policy
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There are 13 comments.

  1. Coolidge
    TBA

    In a sense this is everyone still paying for the dissonance of nations within a nation. 

     

    • #1
    • December 17, 2018 at 3:28 pm
    • 1 like
  2. Coolidge

    Years ago, I watched a conference featuring Justices Scalia and Breyer on C-SPAN.

    The Justices were asked if they had ever had to rule against their personal inclinations. Scalia immediately came back with what I recognize now as the Holyfield case.

    Breyer hemmed and hawed, and whined about being put on the spot, and failed to come up with a single case.

    Being a liberal Justice means never having to say you’re sorry. That is, you can always come up with a “penumbra of an emanation” of the Constitution (in William O. Douglas’s pungent phrase) that lets you do whatever happens to be your personal preference at the moment.

    This is why I consider conservatives who would like to see the Democrats defeat Trump as either out of contact with reality or, simply, not conservatives.

    • #2
    • December 17, 2018 at 3:55 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Coolidge

    ICWA also requires the burden of proof for terminating a parent’s rights be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while for the rest of us not members of a conquered people have to be content with your rights being terminated merely if the facts are proven to a “clear and convincing” standard. Citizens of Mexico and other foreign nations in our nation also get the clear and convincing standard.

    I have to say that this preferential treatment infuriates me. I don’t much care if a tribe member has to keep his kid with the tribe. They choose their associations and affiliations and that’s their business, not mine. But I do not like that they get better treatment under the law regarding the burden of proof.

    • #3
    • December 17, 2018 at 5:33 pm
    • 2 likes
  4. Coolidge

    Skyler (View Comment):

    ICWA also requires the burden of proof for terminating a parent’s rights be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while for the rest of us not members of a conquered people have to be content with your rights being terminated merely if the facts are proven to a “clear and convincing” standard. Citizens of Mexico and other foreign nations in our nation also get the clear and convincing standard.

    I have to say that this preferential treatment infuriates me. I don’t much care if a tribe member has to keep his kid with the tribe. They choose their associations and affiliations and that’s their business, not mine. But I do not like that they get better treatment under the law regarding the burden of proof.

    Remember, for progressives the US is Evil Country to be Destroyed #3. (#1 was apartheid South Africa; #2 is Israel.) If a progressive policy works toward weakening or dismembering the US, this is not a bug but a feature.

    For example, there was bilingual education, which made sure millions of Hispanic kids never learned to speak English properly.

    Similarly, the purpose of ICWA is to prevent the melting pot from working.

     

    • #4
    • December 17, 2018 at 7:41 pm
    • 1 like
  5. Coolidge

    Taras (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    ICWA also requires the burden of proof for terminating a parent’s rights be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while for the rest of us not members of a conquered people have to be content with your rights being terminated merely if the facts are proven to a “clear and convincing” standard. Citizens of Mexico and other foreign nations in our nation also get the clear and convincing standard.

    I have to say that this preferential treatment infuriates me. I don’t much care if a tribe member has to keep his kid with the tribe. They choose their associations and affiliations and that’s their business, not mine. But I do not like that they get better treatment under the law regarding the burden of proof.

    Remember, for progressives the US is Evil Country to be Destroyed #3. (#1 was apartheid South Africa; #2 is Israel.) If a progressive policy works toward weakening or dismembering the US, this is not a bug but a feature.

    For example, there was bilingual education, which made sure millions of Hispanic kids never learned to speak English properly.

    Similarly, the purpose of ICWA is to prevent the melting pot from working.

     

    On the contrary, I think the original purpose of ICWA was to stop the very real attempts to take children from the Indians so they would be raised by non-indians and thus help wipe out the indian culture. Many of these cultures were benign, but many others were quite murderous. For these latter it was quite sensible to want to wipe them out. But that mission was accomplished by now, so ICWA is no longer needed.

     

    • #5
    • December 18, 2018 at 3:05 am
    • Like
  6. Coolidge

    The law I really despise is the ICPC, the Interstate Compact for the Protection of Children. It was originally intended to stop states from dumping foster children in other states to take advantage of their looser welfare policies.

    First, it would seem to me that this should be the price paid for having loose welfare policies, but beyond that the real effect of the law is horrendous.

    What the act does is make it hard to move children to caregivers out of state without that state’s permission or agreement. That agreement can take many months. A court action to return children to parents or name the state as their conservator has to be completed within a deadline, usually one year.

    So, I’ve have several cases where the parents’ families are from out of state. They have a large family network in that other state. But we can’t move the children to that family and have to put them in foster care. By the time the ICPC is completed, the foster family has a vested interest in the children and now they are fighting, and often succeed, in keeping the children away from the blood family.

    I find this result to be repulsive, and that result is not at all unusual. I have a case that just ended where the mom and the dad’s family in New Hampshire are both very fine with middle class homes and lots of family support, yet because the children had been kept in foster care the courts don’t want to “disrupt” their lives again. It’s just about the most asinine government policy ever.

    • #6
    • December 18, 2018 at 4:12 am
    • 3 likes
  7. Contributor
    Walter Olson Post author

    I’ve never had a chance to look into the ICPC, and @skyler‘s comments about it are fascinating. Unless there is an objection I would like to quote from them at my blog Overlawyered, where I will be doing a write-up about my ICWA piece. Perhaps other readers will contribute their experiences with ICPC. 

    • #7
    • December 18, 2018 at 8:39 am
    • Like
  8. Coolidge

     Walter Olson (View Comment):

    I’ve never had a chance to look into the ICPC, and @skyler‘s comments about it are fascinating. Unless there is an objection I would like to quote from them at my blog Overlawyered, where I will be doing a write-up about my ICWA piece. Perhaps other readers will contribute their experiences with ICPC.

    No objection 

    • #8
    • December 18, 2018 at 8:46 am
    • Like
  9. Coolidge

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Taras (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    ICWA also requires the burden of proof for terminating a parent’s rights be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while for the rest of us not members of a conquered people have to be content with your rights being terminated merely if the facts are proven to a “clear and convincing” standard. Citizens of Mexico and other foreign nations in our nation also get the clear and convincing standard.

    I have to say that this preferential treatment infuriates me. I don’t much care if a tribe member has to keep his kid with the tribe. They choose their associations and affiliations and that’s their business, not mine. But I do not like that they get better treatment under the law regarding the burden of proof.

    Remember, for progressives the US is Evil Country to be Destroyed #3. (#1 was apartheid South Africa; #2 is Israel.) If a progressive policy works toward weakening or dismembering the US, this is not a bug but a feature.

    For example, there was bilingual education, which made sure millions of Hispanic kids never learned to speak English properly.

    Similarly, the purpose of ICWA is to prevent the melting pot from working.

    On the contrary, I think the original purpose of ICWA was to stop the very real attempts to take children from the Indians so they would be raised by non-indians and thus help wipe out the indian culture. Many of these cultures were benign, but many others were quite murderous. For these latter it was quite sensible to want to wipe them out. But that mission was accomplished by now, so ICWA is no longer needed.

    Just to review what Prof. Olson wrote about the Holyfield case:

    A mother and father agreed on an off-reservation adoptive placement they saw as promising a better life for their child. But under ICWA, the Court ruled, they couldn’t do that without the tribe’s permission, because ICWA required that tribes be given first access before an Indian child was placed outside Indian communities. In short, rights of choice that non-Native parents would take for granted would not be honored for them; their offspring was a resource for the tribe to conscript to improve its hopes of continuation as an institution, no matter what Mom and Dad’s views of the infant’s best interests.

    (Emphasis mine.) Here we see the Federal government intervening to prevent the benign and voluntary process which gradually unifies us as Americans.

    • #9
    • December 18, 2018 at 10:02 am
    • 1 like
  10. Coolidge

    Taras (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Taras (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    ICWA also requires the burden of proof for terminating a parent’s rights be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while for the rest of us not members of a conquered people have to be content with your rights being terminated merely if the facts are proven to a “clear and convincing” standard. Citizens of Mexico and other foreign nations in our nation also get the clear and convincing standard.

    I have to say that this preferential treatment infuriates me. I don’t much care if a tribe member has to keep his kid with the tribe. They choose their associations and affiliations and that’s their business, not mine. But I do not like that they get better treatment under the law regarding the burden of proof.

    Remember, for progressives the US is Evil Country to be Destroyed #3. (#1 was apartheid South Africa; #2 is Israel.) If a progressive policy works toward weakening or dismembering the US, this is not a bug but a feature.

    For example, there was bilingual education, which made sure millions of Hispanic kids never learned to speak English properly.

    Similarly, the purpose of ICWA is to prevent the melting pot from working.

     

    On the contrary, I think the original purpose of ICWA was to stop the very real attempts to take children from the Indians so they would be raised by non-indians and thus help wipe out the indian culture. Many of these cultures were benign, but many others were quite murderous. For these latter it was quite sensible to want to wipe them out. But that mission was accomplished by now, so ICWA is no longer needed.

     

    Just to review what Prof. Olson wrote about the Holyfield case:

    A mother and father agreed on an off-reservation adoptive placement they saw as promising a better life for their child. But under ICWA, the Court ruled, they couldn’t do that without the tribe’s permission, because ICWA required that tribes be given first access before an Indian child was placed outside Indian communities. In short, rights of choice that non-Native parents would take for granted would not be honored for them; their offspring was a resource for the tribe to conscript to improve its hopes of continuation as an institution, no matter what Mom and Dad’s views of the infant’s best interests.

    (Emphasis mine.) Here we see the Federal government intervening to prevent the benign and voluntary process which gradually unifies us as Americans.

    And yet they were still members of the tribe.

    • #10
    • December 18, 2018 at 10:05 am
    • Like
  11. Coolidge

    @skyler — Here’s Olson again:

    “In the Washington state case In re the Adoption of T.A.W., the mother with Indian ancestry wanted the tribe to stay out of it, to no avail. In the Oklahoma case of M.K.T., the father wanted to unenroll from tribal membership, again in vain.”

    Olson points out that the parent who is a tribal member may barely remember when he was inducted into the tribe as a child, and may be totally estranged from it, but ICWA doesn’t care. It applies its one-drop rule, regardless.

    • #11
    • December 18, 2018 at 10:19 am
    • Like
  12. Coolidge

    Taras (View Comment):
    Olson points out that the parent who is a tribal member may barely remember when he was inducted into the tribe as a child, and may be totally estranged from it, but ICWA doesn’t care. It applies its one-drop rule, regardless.

    Well, that’s a problem.

    • #12
    • December 18, 2018 at 10:32 am
    • Like
  13. Contributor
    Walter Olson Post author

    Here is my post today at Overlawyered quoting @skyler‘s comment above: 

    https://www.overlawyered.com/2018/12/icwa-child-placement-and-icpc/

    • #13
    • December 20, 2018 at 8:23 pm
    • Like