These kind of cases feel like they are coming in a rapid speed right now–this is the third one I am aware of that have been/will be decided this spring. The issue is the attempted interference by foster parents in a transfer to tribal court proceeding, usually by trying to achieve party status.
Having considered the parties’ briefing — and assuming without deciding both that J.P. and S.P. were granted intervenor-party status in the superior court and that such a grant of intervenor-party status would have been appropriate4 — we dismiss this appeal as moot. “If the party bringing the action would not be entitled to any relief even if it prevails, there is no ‘case or controversy’ for us to decide,” and the action is therefore moot.5 As explained in our order of July 9, 2021, even if we were to rule that the superior court erred in transferring jurisdiction, we lack the authority to order the court of the Sun’aq Tribe, a separate sovereign, to transfer jurisdiction of the child’s proceeding back to state court.6 And we lack authority to directly review the tribal court’s placement order.7
The Court cites my all time favorite transfer case–In re M.M. from 2007. Not only is that decision a complete endorsement of tribal jurisdiction, it also explains concurrent jurisdiction (especially useful when you are operating in a PL280 state), which is not the power to have simultaneous jurisdiction, but the power to chose between two jurisdictions.
When we speak of “concurrent jurisdiction,” we refer to a situation in which two (or perhaps more) different courts are authorized to exercise jurisdiction over the same subject matter, such that a litigant may choose to proceed in either forum.FN13 As the Minnesota Supreme Court explained in a case involving an Indian tribe, “[c]oncurrent jurisdiction describes a situation where two or more tribunals are authorized to hear and dispose of a matter *915 and the choice of which tribunal is up to the person bringing the matter to court.” (Gavle, supra, 555 N.W.2d at p. 290.) Contrary to Minor’s apparent belief, that two courts have concurrent jurisdiction does not mean that both courts may simultaneously entertain actions involving the very same subject matter and parties.
Here is a case that continues to demonstrate the importance of ensuring a state ICWA law allows transfer of cases post-termination. Navajo Nation intervened and appealed the decision to deny transfer (and to move the children back to the former, non-ICWA compliant foster home, who opposed the transfer to tribal court).
Additional important issues in this case including the appealability of a final order, standing of former foster parents (they had none), and post-termination transfer to tribal court.
We acknowledge that ICWA only addresses a request to
transfer jurisdiction during foster care placement and termination of parental rights proceedings. 25 U.S.C. § 1911(b). It does not mention such a request during preadoptive or adoptive placement proceedings. See id. Even so, the Children’s Code, as it existed at the time the juvenile court denied transfer, permits a juvenile court to consider transfer of jurisdiction to a tribal court “[i]n any of the cases identified in subsection (1) of this section involving an Indian child.” § 19-1-126(1), (4)(a). The cases identified in subsection (1) include “pre-adoptive and adoption proceedings.” § 19-1-126(1).
We are disturbed by this weekend’s flurry of negative media attention regarding the attempted reunification of a child with her family in Utah. In this contentious custody case, there have never been any surprises as far as what the law required. The foster family was well aware years ago this girl is an Indian child, whose case is subject to the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and who has relatives who were willing to raise her if reunification with her father was unsuccessful.
In fact, the only surprising turn of events is the lengths the foster family has gone to, under the advice of an attorney with a long history of trying to overturn ICWA, to drag out litigation as long as possible, creating instability for the child in question. That the foster family now argues bonding and attachment should supersede all else despite testimony of those closest to her case, seems like a long-term, calculated legal strategy based on the simple fact that the law was always clear, they understood it, but just chose not to abide by it.
The purpose of foster care is to provide temporary care for children while families get services and support to reunite with their children, not to fast-track the creation of new families when there is extended family available who want to care for the child. The temporary nature of these relationships is also the reason we view those who serve as foster parents as selfless and nurturing individuals. Reunification and placement with extended family whenever possible is best practice for all children, not just Native American children.
We call on the media to provide balanced reporting and to ask vital questions regarding these facts before inflaming the public and subjecting the privacy and future well-being of a little girl to national debate.
Our previous coverage of the appeal of this case is here.
As always, we remain concerned with the lack of privacy for a child who doesn’t get to make decisions about her identity being put forward into the press. In perhaps no surprise to anyone, this case involves repeat players from the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl case.