Important ICWA Case Out of Oklahoma on Application and Transfer to Tribal Court

Here. This is a long post, but there’s some data at the end! The Oklahoma Supreme Court wins favorite sentence in an ICWA case of 2016:

“Appellants’ [State of Oklahoma and foster mother] unlearned understanding of what is binding case law and attempts to broaden holdings of this Court, the United States Supreme Court [Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl], and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals [Neilson v. Ketchum], and ICWA’s provisions dealing with termination of parental rights will not support a reversal of the district court’s order. Because the district court did not err in granting the motion to transfer to tribal court, we affirm the order granting the motion to transfer.”

Facts (everything in bold is emphasis added):

M.H.C. (the child) was born in September of 2013. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) placed the child in protective custody on November 5, 2013. In the initial petition filed on November 18, 2013, the State of Oklahoma1 (the State) declared ICWA’s provisions applicable. On November 21, 2013, the Cherokee Nation appeared at the initial appearance, and the natural mother informed the court that she had a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood but was not currently a tribal member.

¶3 Thereafter, the Cherokee Nation received official notice from the State that it planned to adjudicate the child as deprived. The Cherokee Nation sent DHS a response notifying DHS that the child was eligible for enrollment in the tribe and enclosing a tribal-enrollment application for DHS to complete. The Cherokee Nation testified it could not complete the application without access to the child’s case file and birth certificate. After the Cherokee Nation’s initial attempt to have DHS complete the enrollment application, the Cherokee Nation sent DHS three additional enrollment applications. DHS employee Ms. Choate testified to seeing at least one application and acknowledged that a DHS employee can fill out a child’s enrollment application without natural mother’s assistance. Ms. Choate testified she had previously filled out a child’s application to help the child gain tribal membership.

¶4 On December 3, 2013, the district court ruled ICWA inapplicable. At the first family team meeting, the Cherokee Nation, the natural mother, and DHS were present. The natural mother was informed if she gained membership in the Cherokee Nation, ICWA would apply. The natural mother was also told if ICWA applied, the child would likely have to leave foster mother’s care because foster mother was a non-ICWA compliant placement. No party informed the natural mother of ICWA’s benefits and protections.2 The natural mother declined to enroll at the time. The district court subsequently found the State broke confidentiality by allowing the Cherokee Nation to attend a family team meeting in a non-ICWA case.

¶5 In September 2014, the State filed a motion to terminate the natural mother’s rights due to her absence in the pending court proceedings.The State served the natural mother by publication. On December 18, 2014, the court entered a Default Order of Termination of Parental Rights against the natural mother for failure to appear and defend her rights to her child. On February 5, 2015, the natural mother became an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. On February 19, 2015, the Cherokee Nation filed a motion to intervene and, on March 24, 2015, filed a motion to transfer to tribal court. In the spring of 2015, the district court vacated the order terminating the natural mother’s rights due to statutorily defective service. On June 9, 2015, the district court found natural mother’s rights were still intact and the permanency plan should be reunification.

The Appellants made the following arguments as to why OICWA and ICWA should not apply:

1. “Appellant’s position is that congressional intent to limit ICWA’s reach is found in its rejection of a proposed definition of ‘Indian’ to include all persons eligible for membership in an Indian tribe within ICWA’s purview whether or not a parent was a tribal member.”

2. “OICWA, 10 O.S.2011 §§ 40-40.9, limits ICWA’s application to children who are Indian children prior to the proceedings’ initiation.”

3. “ICWA’s plain language prohibits applying ICWA to a case where the child is not in a parent’s custody at the time the child comes within ICWA’s definition of Indian child.”

4. “Their initial premise is that the child was not removed from an Indian family because the mother was not enrolled at the time the State removed the child. Appellants assert that pursuant to Section 1902’s policy statement, ICWA applies only to ‘intact Indian families,’ and no Indian family existed at the time of the child’s removal.” An argument the Oklahoma Supreme Court called “at best, confusing.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court found that “[t]he provisions of ICWA become effective in a state child custody proceeding on the date that the record supports a finding that ICWA applies. Section 1911(b) became applicable, with prospective application, when the child met the definition of an Indian child under ICWA. Appellants have failed to provide any authority which would require a different finding.”

The Supreme Court also agreed that transfer was appropriate, stating among other things:

Appellants claim the best interests of the child support denial of the transfer to tribal court. The record does not support their argument. The goal of the district court’s permanency plan was reunification with the natural mother. Appellants failed to present any evidence which would show that transfer to tribal court would not promote this goal. Although Appellants introduced evidence of a bond with a half-sibling in the foster mother’s care, they introduced no evidence of a bond with the foster mother and failed to present any evidence of physical or emotional harm to the child if the proceedings were transferred to tribal court. Appellants’ evidence was that the child would suffer from a change in foster-care placement-an issue not before the district court or this Court. ICWA’s placement preference are applicable to district court proceeding. And lastly, the best interests of the child can just as easily be determined by the tribal court.One argument Appellants strongly imply is that a tribal court could not make this determination. Appellants have not supported this implication, and we refuse to make such a finding.

Since the last time a state appellate court has affirmed a lower court’s transfer to tribal court, (In re Jayda L., Neb. Ct. App. 2012), there have been at least 13 other transfer cases. Only 2 others ended up with a transfer to tribal court (Kansas, Nebraska). This is the 20th case ever where the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s transfer decision. In comparison, there have been 22 times where the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision to send the case to tribal court.

Transfer to Tribal Court Case out of the Arizona Court of Appeals


This decision from last Thursday highlights the 1911(b) explicit transfer provision, which allows for foster care and termination proceedings to be transferred, but is silent on pre-adoptive or adoptive proceedings. The final footnote may provide some guidance in the future:

18  Because the Community sought transfer of jurisdiction only under the authority of 25 U.S.C. § 1911(b), we do not analyze or address the propriety of such a motion under any other authority. See In re Welfare of the Child of R.S. & L.S., 805 N.W.2d at 57 (Dietzen, J., concurring) (“The court’s consideration of those issues is dictum and not binding on the
court.”). See also 2016 BIA Final Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 38822, J(1), Response to Comment (“Parties may request transfer of preadoptive and adoptive placement proceedings, but the standards for addressing such motions are not dictated by ICWA or these regulations. Tribes possess inherent jurisdiction over domestic relations, including the welfare of child citizens of the Tribe, even beyond that authority confirmed in ICWA. . . . Thus, it may be appropriate to transfer preadoptive and adoptive proceedings involving children residing outside of a reservation to Tribal jurisdiction in particular circumstances.” (citations omitted)); 25 U.S.C. § 1902 (providing a Congressional declaration of policy stating that ICWA establishes “minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture”).

Oral Arguments in Gila River Indian Community v. Dept. of Child Safety et al

One of the children in this case was originally the named plaintiff in A.D. v. Washburn (also called Carter v. Washburn, or the Goldwater litigation). Goldwater is representing the foster parents in this case, now in state court. Tom Murphy, in-house at GRIC, is doing the oral argument for the tribe here.