Qualified Expert Witness Case out of Alaska Supreme Court [ICWA]

Here

I have been trying to figure out how to comment on this particular opinion, though I may just default to Alaska’s QEW holdings have always been outliers . . .

So as a reminder for us all, this is how the Minnesota Supreme Court described the purpose of the QEW:

The third clause—“including testimony of qualified expert witnesses”—further identifies what must be included as part of the court’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” determination. Id.; see also Larson v. State, 790 N.W.2d 700, 705 (Minn. 2010) (“[A] limiting phrase . . . ordinarily modifies only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.”). The clause provides that testimony from a QEW must support the court’s serious-damage determination. But this testimony need not stand alone. The statute provides that the court’s serious-damage determination must be supported by evidence “including testimony of qualified expert witnesses.” 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f) (emphasis added). “Include” means “[t]o contain as a part of something.” Include, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (emphasis added). So long as the QEW testimony supports the district court’s serious-damage determination, section 1912(f) has been satisfied. In other words, the court may pair the required QEW testimony with other supporting evidence to make its serious-damage determination.

The Alaska Supreme Court is now interpreting the regulations to mean

. . . the primary consideration in determining whether an expert is qualified under ICWA is the expert’s ability to speak to the likelihood of harm to the child if returned to the parent’s custody; knowledge of tribal customs and standards is preferred, but such knowledge alone is insufficient. The experts in Oliver’s and Lisa’s cases, despite their extensive knowledge of tribal cultural standards, do not meet this requirement.

Therefore,

As a tribal elder and leader of his community, Encelewski is clearly qualified to testify to tribal cultural standards and childrearing norms. But nothing in the record shows he has sufficient knowledge, either through his experience on the ICWA committee or from formal training, to discuss specifically how Oliver’s conduct or the conditions in his home were likely to result in serious physical or emotional harm to the child if returned to his care. There is no evidence that the source of Encelewski’s conclusion that Oliver’s behavior would likely harm the child is based on anything other than Encelewski’s extensive life experience as a community leader and grandfather. This is insufficient to qualify him to testify about the likelihood of harm if the child is returned to Oliver. To meet the ICWA standards, Encelewski — as the sole expert testifying in support of terminating Oliver’s parental rights — must have been qualified to testify about that causal relationship; nothing in his testimony supports such a qualification.

Among other things, I believe this means that most QEW trainings for Alaska are going to need to fundamentally change to address this holding, especially for tribes using leaders or child welfare committee members as their QEWs.

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