Second ICWA-Related Argument at Michigan SCT on Wednesday

Here is the issue in In re Gordon:

Courtney Hinkle first came to the attention of Children’s Protective Services after she was suspected of neglecting her months-old infant. When the child was one year old, CPS learned that he had been treated for second-degree burns to his hands, allegedly caused by a fall into a fireplace, and that Hinkle had not obtained follow-up medical care for him as directed. CPS filed a court action, and the child was taken into protective custody and placed in foster care. After attempting to provide services for Hinkle and concluding that she did not benefit from them, the Department of Human Services filed a petition seeking termination of Hinkle’s parental rights. At the conclusion of the termination hearing, the circuit judge found that DHS had established grounds for termination, and that termination was in the child’s best interests.

Hinkle appealed to the Court of Appeals, contending that DHS and the circuit court failed to comply with the notice requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), 25 USC 1901 et seq., and failed to create a complete record of their attempts at compliance. Under the ICWA, child custody proceedings involving foster care placement or termination of parental rights to an “Indian child,” 25 USC 1903(4), are subject to specific federal procedures and standards. ICWA requires that an interested Indian tribe receive notice of termination proceedings involving an Indian child, 25 USC 1912(a). Under the ICWA, an “Indian child” is any unmarried individual less than eighteen years of age who is either (1) an Indian tribe member or (2) both eligible for Indian tribe membership and an Indian tribe member’s biological child. 25 USC 1903(4). The question whether a person is a member of a tribe or eligible for membership is for the tribe itself to answer. In re NEGP, 245 Mich App 126, 133 (2001). The failure to comply with the Indian tribe notice requirements may lead to invalidation of the proceedings. 25 USC 1914.

The circuit court record disclosed that Hinkle informed the judge that her family was part of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe in Mt. Pleasant. Hinkle stated that she and her child were not tribal members, and that her biological mother was not a member of the tribe, but that her mother’s siblings were, including the aunt who was caring for her son during his foster care placement. She stated that she and her mother were awaiting word as to their own eligibility for tribal membership. The circuit judge directed DHS to investigate the child’s possible tribal membership and to notify the tribe of the proceedings. At a later hearing, the caseworker stated that she mailed a certified letter to the tribe, but had not heard back as to the child’s membership. At a subsequent hearing, the caseworker informed the court that Hinkle’s mother had been told that the family was not eligible for tribal “benefits.” The foster mother stated that she was a tribal mother, and that she tried to obtain information regarding the child’s status from the tribe, but that the tribe refused to release that information to anyone but DHS or the court. The court directed the caseworker to contact the tribe again. The ICWA notice issue was not mentioned again at any hearing and the file contains no mention of any further communications with the tribe.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s termination of Hinkle’s parental rights in an unpublished per curiam opinion. Hinkle did not demonstrate that the trial court and DHS failed to satisfy ICWA’s notice requirement, the Court of Appeals stated; there was ample evidence that the tribe had actual notice of the proceedings, the appellate court said. Moreover, “[g]iven respondent’s own statement in court that she received a response that she and her son were not eligible for tribal membership, the trial court was relieved from embarking on further ICWA tribal notification efforts,” the Court of Appeals concluded. Hinkle appeals.

And here are the briefs:

Petitioner-Appellee’s Response to Application for Leave to Appeal>>

Respondent-Appellant’s Application for Leave to Appeal
Respondent-Appellant’s Supplemental Brief>>

Michigan Indian Legal Services, Inc. and The American Indian Law Section of the State Bar of Michigans’ Amici Curiae Brief>>

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