Transfer to Tribal Court Case from Iowa Supreme Court [ICWA]

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This is a very useful decision directly addressing one for the most difficult parts of a transfer process–whether the state court will use a best interest analysis to determine jurisdiction.

These are not reasons to deny a tribe jurisdiction over a child welfare case:

The State argued that transfer should be denied because of the lack of
responsibility by Mother and Father, the efforts of the foster parents to promote
the children’s Native American heritage, and the good relationship between the
current professionals and the children. The guardian ad litem for the children
joined the State in resisting the transfer of the case to tribal court.

Oh, and would you look at that, a CASA:

The juvenile court noted that the court appointed special
advocate (CASA) for the children recommended that the parental rights of the
parents be terminated and the children continue living with the foster parents.

But don’t worry–the Iowa Supreme Court clearly channeled the Washington Supreme Court in its thoughtful discussion of ICWA and its purpose, summarizing that

The federal ICWA and accompanying regulations and guidelines establish a framework for consideration of motions to transfer juvenile matters from state court to tribal court. Although good cause is not elaborated at length, both the statute and regulations state in some detail what is not good cause. Absent an objection to transfer or a showing of unavailability or
substantial hardship with a tribal forum, transfer is to occur. Clearly, Congress
has an overall objective in enacting ICWA to establish a framework for the preservation of Native American families wherever possible.

The Court goes on to discuss the Iowa ICWA at length, along with some bad caselaw in Iowa, specifically the In re J.L. case, which is a really awful decision and has been a pain to deal with for years.

This Court states,

State courts have struggled with the statutory question of whether federal
or state ICWA statutes permit a child to raise a best interests challenge to
transfer to tribal courts. In In re N.V., 744 N.W.2d 634, we answered the
question. After surveying the terms of the federal and state ICWA statutes, we
concluded that the statutes did not permit a child to challenge transfer on best
interests grounds. Id. at 638–39.

***

In short, there can be no substantive due process violation arising from a
statute that refuses to allow a party to present on an issue irrelevant to the
proceeding. To that extent, we overrule the holding ofIn re J.L. (emphasis ADDED)

***

In conclusion, if there is no objecting child above the age of twelve, we hold
that the transfer provisions of ICWA which do not permit a child from raising the
best interests of the child to oppose transfer does not violate substantive due
process.

Therefore,

In an ICWA proceeding, the United States Supreme Court observed that
“we must defer to the experience, wisdom, and compassion of the . . . tribal
courts to fashion an appropriate remedy” in Indian child welfare cases. Holyfield,
490 U.S. at 54 (quoting In re Adoption of Halloway, 732 P.2d at 972). These
observations apply in this case

There is a small dissent on whether the Father could appeal this case, but no issues with the Tribe’s appeal. Also, a reminder that the issue of jurisdiction was never a question Brackeen and decisions like this one are tremendously helpful for tribes seeking to transfer cases.

Two ICWA Cases from the Michigan Court of Appeals

Unreported Notice case (parent challenge, no indication child was eligible for tribal citizenship): In re Applewhiate

Reported case: In re JJW_Opinion

The MSU Indian Law Clinic/ICWA Appellate Project co-authored the Tribe’s brief in In re JJW.

ICWA Placement Preference Decision Out of California Involving Choctaw Tribe

Here.

This is a re-occurring and incredibly frustrating ICWA fact pattern–if the ICWA compliant placement is out of state, or far away from the parents, and the goal is reunification, it makes sense for the tribe and state to allow for a non-compliant ICWA placement near the parents. What happens, however, when reunification fails? As in this case, a court is often unwilling to remove the child from the home she has been in for anywhere from one to three years. Honest, actual, concurrent permanency planning could help with this, but while that is a best practice, it does not seem to be happening with any regularity at the state.

Concluding that the ICWA’s adoptive placement preferences do apply to this case, we then review the trial court’s order finding that the P.s failed to produce clear and convincing evidence of good cause to depart from those placement preferences. We determine that the court applied the correct burden of proof by requiring the P.s to prove by clear and convincing evidence that there was good cause to deviate from section 1915’s placement preferences. However, the court erroneously required the P.s to prove a certainty that Alexandria would suffer harm if moved, and failed to consider Alexandria’s best interests or her bond with the P.s in determining good cause.

***

We recognize that a final decision regarding Alexandria’s adoptive placement will be further delayed as a result of our determination of the merits of this appeal. That delay is warranted by the need to insure that the correct legal standard is utilized in deciding whether good cause has been shown that it is in the best interest of Alexandria to depart from the ICWA’s placement preferences.

As also often happens, the parties start arguing about the very constitutionality of ICWA, making this case a “not as bad as it could have been” case–the court didn’t find ICWA is unconstitutional, nor does Adoptive Couple apply (as the de facto parents argued) to this fact pattern. And yet, the trial court decision placing the child with her extended family is still overturned based on the child’s best interest standard. Getting courts to acknowledge that the best interests of a child ought to include the child’s whole life, not just the one transition in front of the court at that moment, is both vital and seemingly impossible.

For the (depressing) record, here is Evelyn Blanchard writing the same thing in 1977 in The Destruction of American Indian Families, ed. Steven Unger (Association of American Indian Affairs 1977).

(Happy to post redacted briefs if we receive any)