ICWA Regulations, Reason to Know, and the Importance of In re Z.J.G.

Now that the decision in out in In re Z.J.G., I feel like I can write about the reason this case was so important–beyond what I would consider the obvious (parent’s testimony), which I detailed in this post here.

The 2016 federal regulations for ICWA can be a double sided sword. There are portions of them that are absolutely vital and beneficial to the implementation and enforcement of ICWA. I think the most obvious one is the definition of active efforts in 25 C.F.R. 23.1, which finally gives a structure for one of the most important elements of the law. However, there are parts of the regulations that can be read in ways to counter ICWA’s protections. The reason to know section of the regulations has been one of those areas.

ICWA requires a bunch of stuff, including notice, when a court “knows or had reason to know” there is an Indian child in a child custody proceeding. 25 U.S.C. 1912(a) The regulation in contention in In re Z.J.G. was 23.107(c). That section states a court “has reason to know that a child involved in an emergency or child custody proceeding is an Indian child if:” and gives six elements. Those elements use the term “Indian child” in them–as in “any participant in the proceeding … informs the court that it has information indicating that the child is an Indian child.” 23.107(c)(2) (emphasis added). Some states, including Washington, took it upon themselves to read this regulation to mean that the child must be an “Indian child” as defined in ICWA–a member or eligible for membership and the biological child of a member–for a court to have reason to know. If this feels like circular reasoning, I’d argue that it is. Or, as Justice Montoya Lewis wrote:

However, this narrow interpretation commits the error addressed above: it assumes state agencies or participants will know and properly interpret tribal membership and eligibility rules. This interpretation diminishes the tribe’s exclusive role in determining membership and undermines the historical purpose of providing proper notification to tribes.

Decision at 30. 

And also,

While a broad interpretation serves the statute’s purposes, a narrow interpretation would undermine the protection of Indian children and tribes. The “reason to know” finding triggers the requirement of formal notification to tribes. 25 U.S.C. § 1912(a); RCW 13.38.070(1). Without formal notification, tribes are likely unaware of the child custody proceedings. Lack of notice repeats the historical harms that predicated the passage of ICWA and WICWA: Indian children are more likely to be taken and then lost in the system, often adopted when legally free, primarily to non-Native homes; tribes are denied the opportunity to make membership determinations; and tribes are unable to intervene in the case or exercise jurisdiction. 25 U.S.C. § 1911. Further, the failure to timely apply ICWA may unnecessarily deny ICWA protection to Indian children and their families, which could lead to unnecessary delays, as the court and parties may need to redo certain processes in order to comply with ICWA standards. ICWA Proceedings, 81 Fed. Reg. at 38,802; see also 25 U.S.C. § 1914 (noting that any Indian child, parent, or tribe may petition any court to invalidate a child custody action “upon a showing that such action violated any provisions of sections 1911, 1912, and 1913 of this title”). As those who practice in the area of child welfare and dependency know, if a court determines  that ICWA and WICWA should have been applied from the beginning of a case and was not, key decisions may have to be revisited because the burden of proof is higher at threshold stages of dependency cases.

Decision at 33-34.

Finally, a thing I think we forget a lot when talking about the regulations–they are the federal minimum standards. 25 C.F.R. 23.106. In Washington, for example, the state law has even more qualifying language. stating that a court has a reason to know an Indian child is involved in the case when it “knows or has reason to know a child is or may be an Indian child.” RCW 13.38.070. And while it could have done so, the Washington Supreme Court did not base its unanimous decision on just WICWA, but rather on ICWA, the regulations, and independently and alternatively on WICWA. 

Anyway, yes, I did do my first oral argument in this case, thanks to a bunch of awesome lawyers, including the two women attorneys up at CCTHITA, and we worked with the Center for Indigenous Research and Justice and Hon. Whitener (ret.) to get all the briefs filed, and was lucky to work with the very excellent parent attorney, Tara Urs (co-author of my top five favorite law review articles ever).

Also, all of this is all available publicly in all the briefing here, but I wanted to break it down into a post for those who might not read ALL of that:

98003-9 – In the Matter of the Dependency of Z.J.G. and M.E.J.G., minor children.
Hearing Date – 06/25/2020

Reason to Know Decision from NC Supreme Court [ICWA]

Opinion by Justice Beasley, putting the burden on the court to ensure inquiry and notice are done properly:

Here, the record shows that the trial court had reason to know that an Indian child might be involved. In eight separate filings, DSS indicated in its court reports that respondent-father indicated that he had Cherokee Indian heritage. Respondent-father also raised his Indian heritage during a Child and Family Team Meeting, and his comments were included in a report filed by DSS with the trial court. Although the trial court had reason to know that an Indian child might be involved in these proceedings, the trial court failed to readdress its initial finding that the Act did not apply and failed to ensure that any Cherokee tribes were actually notified.

Bay Mills Indian Community Hosts Second Annual Noojimo’iwewin: A VAWA and ICWA Training

Bay Mills Indian Community is hosting its second annual Noojimo’iwewin: A VAWA and ICWA Training on August 5-7, 2020. Once again, the training will focus on issues of child welfare, domestic violence, and community healing. This year, the event is completely virtual. For more details, please see the press release or event website.

Press Release: July 29, 2020

Event website

Crosscut Article on Greer Case

Here

ICWA was thereafter applied to the case, but the damage was done — the children were placed in foster care without the normal protections the law would have offered them. Now, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska are challenging the decision in the Washington State Supreme Court. If the court’s decision is upheld, advocates say the case could significantly weaken the use of ICWA in Washington by raising the bar for what qualifies as a “reason to know” that a child is “Indian” in the eyes of the law.

Kathryn Fort, director of Michigan State’s Indian Law Clinic, who is arguing on behalf of the tribes in the case involving Greer and Graham, says that it shouldn’t be so difficult. The burden of checking in with a tribe is low, she says, but the outcome has immense implications for the family, children and tribe.

Briefing and oral arguments here.

Children’s Bureau Letter on Termination of Parental Rights During COVID

Childrens-Bureau-Letter-Termination-of-Parental-Rights-and-Adoption-Assistance

A decision to file a TPR petition should be made in light of the impediments that a parent might face as a result of the pandemic. An agency should evaluate carefully whether parents have had a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that they have made the necessary efforts to reunify with their children before taking that step.

As such, I urge agencies to continue to consider the totality of each family’s circumstances prior to filing a TPR petition. During the pandemic and its aftermath, agencies also may want to consider instituting protocols that provide an extra layer of review prior to filing a TPR petition.

Bay Mills Indian Community and OJS Present Virtual VAWA and ICWA Training: August 5-7, 2020

_Noonjimo’iwewin_ A VAWA and ICWA Training

The Bay Mills Indian Community (Gnoozhekaaning) will host Noojimo’iwewin: A Virtual VAWA and ICWA Training, August 5-7, 2020. Streamed digitally via Zoom, the conference invites law enforcement officials, attorneys, and social work advocates from all communities to look forward from domestic violence. This training is tuition free. Register here.

Press release, Noojimo’iwewin: VAWA and ICWA Training 2020

PDF save the date, Noojimo’iwewin: VAWA and ICWA Training

Notice Case out of California [ICWA]

Since April, the California courts of appeal have been wrestling with California’s new law defining “reason to know” from ICWA’s section 1912 and “reason to believe” (state law standard). In addition, the department has been regularly petitioning to make cases reported rather than unreported. Since April with the In re Austin J. case, California courts have been reshaping their very low bar for notice to tribes into a much higher one, with the caveat that the California standard of “reason to believe” does require contact with tribes though not necessarily formal notice. Given California’s outsized role in notice and inquiry ICWA cases, this is a trend that bears watching, with the understanding this is based on California state law, and not the federal ICWA.

Here is In re M.W., decided on May 11. The Department petitioned for publication on May 15 and it was published on June 5. Under the reason to believe standard, the social worker,

The report documented the social worker’s contact with the 12 tribes by telephone, fax, e-mail, and/or mail, the name of the designated agent for each tribe, the dates of attempted contact with each designated agent (all between May 15 and June 4, 2019), and that each tribe was provided with the minor’s “ICWA Family Tree.” As of the date of the report, four of the tribes had confirmed the minor was not an Indian child. As of the July 10, 2019 hearing, six additional tribes had confirmed the minor was not an Indian child, and the two remaining tribes (the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe) had acknowledged contact but had not yet provided a definitive response.

I am curious to know how out of state tribes are feeling this system is working, given that while California may change its ways, tribes are generally set up to receive the paperwork to confirm a family’s tribal membership, and we already know that informal phone calls to confirm or deny a child’s eligibility can be problematic. Early outreach is great, if it works to give tribes MORE information and not less.