We are wrapping up a training in Montana where every person in the room answered the ICWA pop quiz question: “Do ICWA protections apply to non-Native parents of Indian children?” correctly. Luckily the Michigan Court of Appeals answered it correctly as well. The Court of Appeals also provides an excellent discussion of why Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl did not apply to this, and similarly situated cases. There is a lot of useful language in this case for attorneys who continue to run into these issues in trial court across the country.
The trial court applied the appropriate heightened standards or
burdens when terminating respondent-mother’s parental rights, but it failed to apply them when terminating the parental rights of respondent-father, ostensibly because the Indian heritage of the children is solely through their mother’s bloodline. Respondent-father argues that ICWA and MIFPA standards govern the termination of his parental rights, considering that TB is his biological child and an Indian child, regardless of respondent-father’s personal heritage. We agree and conditionally reverse the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights to TB and remand for proceedings consistent with ICWA and MIFPA, as well as MCR 3.977(G).
In addition, however, the Court correctly analyzed whether Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl applied to this case, and raised this issue sua sponte “whether the heightened standards of ICWA, MIFPA, and MCR 3.977(G) should apply to the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights when he never had legal or physical custody rights in regard to TB.”:
Given the equivocal nature of Justice BREYER’s concurrence [in Adoptive Couple], it cannot truly be said that a majority of the United States Supreme Court created an inflexible rule for purposes of “continuing custody” analysis under § 1912(f), as well as the analysis of § 1912(d). And even assuming the contrary, it certainly is not clear whether the Supreme Court would impose the rule based solely on whether a parent had physical custody, in the strictest sense of the term under the law, where a custodial-like environment existed on a practical level absent any technical custodial rights.
We hold that under the particular facts of the instant case, which are entirely dissimilar to those in Adoptive Couple where the father effectively abandoned the child from birth and even in
utero, the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applies to the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights, although he never had legal or physical custody rights, as those terms are legally employed. When DHHS’s petition was filed in August 2015 and for a period thereafter, respondent-father, respondent-mother, and TB lived together as a familial unit wherein respondent-father was providing some care and custody for TB. And petitioner was providing
reunification services. The family unit dissolved only when TB was removed by court order, although respondents remained together. The removal of TB discontinued the custodial arrangement that had existed with respect to both respondents and TB, if not in law, in practice.