This is a re-occurring and incredibly frustrating ICWA fact pattern–if the ICWA compliant placement is out of state, or far away from the parents, and the goal is reunification, it makes sense for the tribe and state to allow for a non-compliant ICWA placement near the parents. What happens, however, when reunification fails? As in this case, a court is often unwilling to remove the child from the home she has been in for anywhere from one to three years. Honest, actual, concurrent permanency planning could help with this, but while that is a best practice, it does not seem to be happening with any regularity at the state.
Concluding that the ICWA’s adoptive placement preferences do apply to this case, we then review the trial court’s order finding that the P.s failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of good cause to depart from those placement preferences. We determine that the court applied the correct burden of proof by requiring the P.s to prove by clear and convincing evidence that there was good cause to deviate from section 1915’s placement preferences. However, the court erroneously required the P.s to prove a certainty that Alexandria would suffer harm if moved, and failed to consider Alexandria’s best interests or her bond with the P.s in determining good cause.
We recognize that a final decision regarding Alexandria’s adoptive placement will be further delayed as a result of our determination of the merits of this appeal. That delay is warranted by the need to insure that the correct legal standard is utilized in deciding whether good cause has been shown that it is in the best interest of Alexandria to depart from the ICWA’s placement preferences.
As also often happens, the parties start arguing about the very constitutionality of ICWA, making this case a “not as bad as it could have been” case–the court didn’t find ICWA is unconstitutional, nor does Adoptive Couple apply (as the de facto parents argued) to this fact pattern. And yet, the trial court decision placing the child with her extended family is still overturned based on the child’s best interest standard. Getting courts to acknowledge that the best interests of a child ought to include the child’s whole life, not just the one transition in front of the court at that moment, is both vital and seemingly impossible.
For the (depressing) record, here is Evelyn Blanchard writing the same thing in 1977 in The Destruction of American Indian Families, ed. Steven Unger (Association of American Indian Affairs 1977).
(Happy to post redacted briefs if we receive any)