Advocates for Native American children say a pledge of a more aggressive federal role in Indian Child Welfare Act enforcement is good news for tribes and the children.
At the conclusion of the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C. this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder briefly outlined the plan to require more compliance with ICWA.
"This federal initiative represents a long overdue recognition by the Department of Justice that, 38 years after Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted into law, the illegal and unnecessary removal of Indian children from their families continues," said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association in Rapid City.
Of particular importance was Holder's announcement that the Department of Justice will intervene in state court cases involving Native American children to make sure that state agencies comply with the act.
"We are working to actively identify state-court cases where the United States can file briefs opposing the unnecessary and illegal removal of Indian children from their families and their tribal communities," Holder told the assemblage.
Native American parents have long complained that their rights and tribal rights are ignored by state authorities, particularly when children are removed from their homes. Under ICWA provisions, parents are entitled to a hearing within 48 hours of their children being removed.
Those so-called 48-hour hearings are often the first step taken to place children in state-run foster care. Parents and tribal authorities claim the courts do not follow ICWA guidelines during those hearings, often rubber-stamping state child services' control of children.
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The announcement is unprecedented, Rapid City attorney Dana Hanna said. Hanna represents the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes and Native American parents who last year filed a federal lawsuit challenging child welfare practices of the South Dakota Department of Social Services and the Seventh Circuit Court.
"What really amazed me about Holder's announcement is his announcement of DOJ's commitment to enter and file amicus briefs in state court cases," Hanna said. "That's unheard of and great from our perspective."
Tribes know best what should happen with Native children, Hanna said, adding that it is important that tribal children remain connected to their culture and families.
Several South Dakota tribes have submitted applications for federal planning grants that would help them develop their own foster-care programs.
Holder's announcement also won praise from the Oregon-based National Indian Child Welfare Association. The association receives calls daily from families suffering because they were separated from their children.
The association strives to publicize those families' stories to help others understand the "true and devastating impact of the unnecessary and illegal removal of Indian children," NICWA spokesperson Nicole Adams said.
"In launching this initiative, Attorney General Holder has signaled that those voices have been heard," Adams said. "We are heartened to see such willingness to turn commitment into concrete action."