Termination of Parental Rights ICWA Case Out of Missouri


This case is illustrative of a lot of the things we talk about regarding practicing in an unfamiliar forum, and getting objections on the record.

The Tribe (Nenana Native Village) brought an appeal regarding the termination of parental rights, though the Tribe also has motions pending at the trial level to transfer jurisdiction and/or get the children in a preferred placement.

The state filed its petition against the Mom on June 11, 2015. The state sent notice on February 23, 2016. No reason for the eight month delay on notice is given in the opinion. In November of 2016 the state filed a petition to terminate parental rights. At that time, Mom agreed to voluntarily relinquish her parental rights. This is a regular issue under ICWA, because while Mom is voluntarily relinquishing, it is under state threat of termination. The Tribe argued that the state needed to at least follow 25 U.S.C. 1913’s requirements for voluntary relinquishment (it didn’t).

The court agreed the tribe had standing to bring the appeal (after much writing, but 25 U.S.C. 1914 ensures the tribe’s standing to appeal violations of 1911, 1912, or 1913), but disagreed that either the qualified expert witness was a problem, or that the state not following 1913 was a “manifest injustice”.

As a side note, the court also fundamentally misunderstands the difference between federal guidelines and federal regulations:

The Tribe’s argument on this point relies upon 25 C.F.R. Sec. 23.122(a), which provides guidance in interpreting Section 1912(f). Promulgated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and published as regulations for interpreting the I.C.W.A., Section 23.122 notes that: [a] qualified expert must be qualified to testify regarding whether the child’s continued custody by the parent . . . is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child and should be qualified to testify as to the prevailing social and cultural standards of the Indian child’s Tribe. 25 C.F.R. Sec. 23.122(a).

We note that while “[t]hese guidelines are helpful[, they] are not binding upon state proceedings.” C.E.H., 837 S.W.2d at 953 (citing Matter of Adoption of T.R.M., 525 N.E.2d 298, 307 (Ind. 1988)). This is because the “primary responsibility for interpreting language used in the [I.C.W.A.] rests with the courts that decide . . . cases [involving Native American children].” Id.

Finally, case also illustrates a point Victoria Sweet and I have presented on a number of times–preserving the record for appeal. Part of the issue with the case is the lack of objection from the Tribe below about the QEW, her testimony, or the termination itself. There are a lot of reasons why this might happen, but I’m using this case to reiterate: if a tribe disagrees with something that is happening in trial court, SAY SO OUT LOUD IN COURT (on the record).  It might be terrifying to do so. The judge might get angry, but ultimately the proceeding will continue. Later, though, if the tribe decides to appeal, the issue is preserved. Absent that preservation, the court of appeals will use a lower standard to review the trial court (if it reviews it at all), and as in this case, use a “plain error” standard and find there is none.

This is an opinion full of incredibly annoying legal details the court wanted the Tribe do to, while the state failed to follow any of the legal details in ICWA.