This is the year of notice and reason to know. Courts are finally wrestling with what the regulations do and do not require–and there is considerable concern about what to do if there is no response from a tribe.
Whenever a court “knows or has reason to know” that a child is an “Indian child” under ICWA, the court is to verify the child’s status prior to conducting termination proceedings. 25 U.S.C. § 1912(a); In re L.D., 2018 MT 60, ¶ 13, 391 Mont. 33, 414 P.3d 768 (internal citations omitted). Whether a child is eligible for tribal membership is a question of fact dependent upon the child’s actual ancestry, and an Indian tribe provides the determination conclusively as a matter of law. 25 C.F.R. § 23.108(b); In re L.D., ¶ 14 (internal citations omitted); In re Adoption of Riffle, 273 Mont. 237, 242, 902 P.2d 542, 545 (1995).
¶22 It follows that a district court does not have authority to make a de novo conclusion regarding eligibility. 25 C.F.R. § 23.108(b); In re L.D., ¶ 14 (internal citations omitted). Instead, the district court must determine “(1) whether the court has reason to believe that a subject child may be an ‘Indian child’ and (2) whether an Indian tribe has conclusively determined that the child is a member or eligible for tribal membership.” In re L.D., ¶ 14 (internal citations omitted). Absent a conclusive tribal determination, a court abuses its discretion by terminating parental rights if there is “reason to believe” the child is an Indian child. In re L.D., ¶ 14 (internal citation omitted).
In this case, however, the issue was the Agency didn’t contact the Tribe at all, leading to the remand.
We hold the District Court abused its discretion in terminating Mother’s parental rights without a conclusive tribal determination of tribal membership status and enrollment eligibility in the United Keetoowah. Since the United Keetoowah is a federally recognized Cherokee tribe,3 and the Department did not contact the tribe, the District Court made a de novo determination regarding M.T. and L.T.’s United Keetoowah tribal eligibility, a determination which is in the sole province of the tribe.