Relative Placement in Washington Supreme Court Decision

Even though this is not an ICWA case, three people have sent me this opinion by Justice Montoya Lewis regarding the primacy of relative placement in child protection proceedings. This opinion points to all sorts of issues that beleaguers relative placement, especially certain aspects of background checks and prior involvement with the system. Here, the Court explicitly holds that prior involvement in the system alone cannot be consider as a reason to keep a child out of a relative placement, and seems to imply that both criminal history and immigration status cannot be considered either.

But no wonder the ICWA advocates  noted this case–you can see ICWA’s influences implicitly and explicitly throughout:

This statutory scheme makes it clear that both the Department and the courts are directed by the legislature to preserve the family unit and, when unable to do so, to place the child with family members, relatives, or fictive kin before looking beyond those categories to nonrelatives.


This means that the dependency court is charged with actively
ensuring that relative placements have been fairly evaluated. This is an active
process required at each hearing. Id. Making a finding that no such family
placements exist at one hearing does not mean that the inquiry ends: the statute
contemplates that the inquiry is ongoing, recognizing that family circumstances
change, as they so often do, and as they did in this very case. Id.

(emphasis added)

Courts must do more than give a passing acknowledgment for relative preference,
as occurred in this case. Courts must actually treat relatives as preferred placement
options and cannot use factors that operate as proxies for race or class to deny
placement with a relative.


Prior involvement with child welfare agencies, without more, can serve as a proxy for race or class, given that families of Color are disproportionately impacted by the child welfare system.11 [!!!!!!]

(emphasis and punctuation added and oh BY THE WAY what does that footnote 11 say?? Is it a very long footnote on ICWA, the gold standard?? Now THAT is a long footnote I don’t mind reading):

11 For example, under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)—the “gold standard” in child welfare policy—children in foster care or preadoptive placement “shall be placed in the least restrictive setting which most approximates a family” with highest preference to a member of the child’s extended family, absent “good cause to the contrary.” 25 U.S.C. § 1915(b); BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS , U.S. DEP T OF INTERIOR, GUIDELINES FOR I MPLEMENTING THE INDIAN CHILD
WELFARE A CT 39 (2016). A party seeking to deviate from this placement preference must state their reasons on the record and bears the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that there is good cause to depart from the placement preference. 25 C.F.R. § 23.132(a), (b). One reason a court may conclude that there is good cause to depart from the placement preference is the unavailability of a suitable placement, but “the standards for determining whether a placement is unavailable must conform to the prevailing social and cultural standards of the Indian community in which the Indian child’s parent or extended family resides or with which the Indian child’s parent or extended family members maintain social and cultural ties,” and socioeconomic status may not be a basis to depart from the placement preference. 25 C.F.R. § 23.132(c)(5), (d). Notably, prior contact with the child welfare system, criminal history, and poverty are not good cause reasons to depart from the strong preference for placement with relatives under ICWA. Likewise, tribes located around Washington State prioritize placement with extended family or other members of the tribal community and rarely treat factors like prior child welfare proceedings or criminal history as disqualifying in determining out-of-home placements for children. See, e.g., NISQUALLY TRIBAL CODE § 50.09.09; NOOKSACK LAWS & ORDINANCES § 15.09.100; JAMESTOWN S’ KLALLAM TRIBE T RIBAL CODE § 33.01.09(J); PUYALLUP TRIBAL C ODE § 7.04.840. But see TULALIP TRIBAL CODE § 4.05.110(4) (prohibiting placement with someone with a criminal conviction, but only for certain crimes identified as disqualifying crimes by the social services division charged by the Tulalip Tribe with the responsibility to protect the health and welfare of Tulalip families and their children (beda?chelh)).

Finally, “Courts must afford meaningful preference to placement with relatives.” (not my emphasis this time)

The Washington Supreme Court is doing very important work right now, as are some of the best child protection activists/litigators in the country (IYKYK).