ICWA Jurisdiction Case Out of North Carolina Court of Appeals


There is a lot going on here, including problematic reasoning over full faith and credit to a tribal court order, but I think it is worth focusing on “ward of the tribal court” language. In 25 USC 1911(a), tribes retain exclusive jurisdiction regardless of the domicile of the child if the child is a “ward of the tribal court.” The weakness in this language was exploited in Rye v. Weasel, the existing Indian family case out of Kentucky (which continues to be one of the few states that upholds this exception).

This opinion essentially creates a definition of “ward”, using the more restrictive language available:

ICWA and the related sections of the Code of Federal Regulations do not instruct as to who should make a finding regarding a child’s status as a tribal court’s ward and North Carolina does not use the term “ward” in the context of adoptions. Black’s Law Dictionary defines a “ward” as “a person, usu[ally] a minor, who is under a guardian’s charge or protection.” WardBLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019). More specifically, Black’s defines “ward of the state” as “[s]omeone who is housed by, and receives protection and necessities from, the government.” Ward of the StateBLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019). For purposes of ICWA, we adopt this definition for the term “Tribal Court Ward.” Applying this definition to the relevant provision of ICWA, once a child has stopped being housed by or provided protections and necessities from the tribe, she will cease being its ward for purposes of 25 U.S.C. § 1911(a)

In 2011, South Dakota DSS was granted full custody of the children. In 2012, the Tribe was granted renewed jurisdiction over the children’s case and placed the children in the care of their “paternal aunt,” Appellant. There is no evidence the children ever made the reservation their domicile or residence after that point in time, nor is there evidence the Tribe housed them or provided protections or necessities thereafter. In fact, the Appellant sought and obtained guardians for the children from the courts of North Carolina. Having lived most of their life outside the Tribe’s reservation and without provision of protections and necessities therefrom, we hold K.L.J. and K.P.J. were not wards of the Tribal Court. The Tribal Court cannot assert exclusive jurisdiction over this matter under 25 U.S.C. § 1911

While I believe this is far too constrained a reading of the text (“protections and necessities” are vague at best, and not required if we were dong a home state analysis of jurisdiction under the UCCJEA, for example), I do think it is a good reminder to tribes to ensure their guardianship codes provide for on-going review of tribal guardianship orders if they wish to maintain the exclusive jurisdiction over the child not living on the reservation. In many states, simply stating that the children are “wards” in the court order is not going to be enough (yes, it should be, but it generally is not).