Reason to Know Decision from Washington Court of Appeals [ICWA]

Here.

ICWA and WICWA require a court conducting a 72-hour shelter care hearing to inquire whether the child is or may be an Indian child. A court substantially complies with that requirement if prior to the hearing the Department has begun a good faith investigation into the child’s Indian status, the parties elicit the relevant evidence during the hearing, and the court considers that evidence before ruling on shelter care.

Ok, sounds good.

The reason-to-know standard turns on evidence that the child is a tribal member, or the child is eligible for tribal membership and a biological parent is a tribal member. If there is a reason to know a child is or may be an Indian child, then ICWA and WICWA require the court to treat the child as an Indian child pending a conclusive membership determination by a tribe. A parent’s mere assertion of Indian heritage absent other evidence is not enough to establish a reason to know a child is or may be an Indian child. Because the Department’s good faith investigation before the shelter care hearing did not reveal evidence that a parent or a child was a tribal member, the court did not err in concluding that there was no reason to know the children were Indian children based on the evidence available at the time of the shelter care hearing, Of course, the Department has an obligation to continue its investigation before proceeding to a dependency or termination hearing.

Oohkay. Then what did the investigation reveal?

The investigation revealed that the mother was eligible in the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, where her mother is enrolled, the Klawock Cooperative Association, and that father was potentially eligible at Umatilla.  This was not just the parent’s assertion (which frankly, given the specificity, should be enough*)–this included the testimony of the social worker who called Central Council. It turns out what this Court means by reason to know is actual evidence of membership:

Because the Department’s good faith investigation before the shelter care hearing did not reveal evidence that a parent or a child was a tribal member,

The children were removed on June 27. The first hearing (shelter care) took place on July 2-3. At that point, the state social worker had called Central Council and knew grandma was enrolled, but not mom. She then testified that “to her knowledge”, dad was not enrolled, but there is nothing in the opinion on how she would know that. The social worker then testifies it was possible the children were eligible for enrollment.  But then, the court’s shelter care order states there is “not a reason to know” the children are Indian children. When Central Council intervenes in the case on July 30, the Court then decided there was reason to know (well, yes, because then we all know).

Everyone knows (ahem) that three-five days is not enough time for a full notice as required by the law (by mail, return receipt requested). Those of us who do this work ALSO know it may take a tribe longer than that to determine membership. The purpose of the Regs (to treat potential/reason to know Indian children as Indian children until determined otherwise) was to ensure those children were treated as Indian children until membership is all sorted out. The Washington Court of Appeals manages to do the opposite–equating “reason to know” with just plain old “know”. Why does this all matter? The legal standard applied at the shelter care hearing:

Specifically, the information before the court at the shelter care hearing as a
result of the Department’s good faith investigation did not establish a reason to know Z.G. and M.G. were Indian children. Because there was no reason to know,
the normal serious threat of substantial harm standard applied at the shelter care hearing.

Unless a Tribe responds the parent is absolutely a member at that first phone call from the state (not even legally required notice), or the parent happens to have legal evidence of membership on him or her, Washington will claim there is no reason to know, and apply a lower burden of proof than the emergency standard required by ICWA under 1922.

*I decided not to rant about why the parent’s testimony isn’t enough/why parents in court aren’t listened to, but imagine I did.

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