SALT LAKE CITY — Over the summer, Shari Pena’s 3-month-old foster son chuckled for the first time when his older sister sneezed, kicking off a new family tradition.
The Penas gathered to celebrate the giggle, a milestone in the child’s Navajo culture. They shared a chicken and rice dish in their West Valley home and took a pinch of salt from the baby’s palm, a gesture symbolizing his generosity.
As the federal law governing child welfare cases for Native American children has withstood recent legal challenges in Utah and in other states, the Penas are among those cheering the victories. The Indian Child Welfare Act sets special standards in the adoption and foster care proceedings and gives preference to Native American families — part of an effort by Congress to correct historical bias against them.
“It’s important that these kids stay in native homes,” Pena said. “We understand one another, our past and our ancestors.”
Pena, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said certain aspects of Navajo culture mirror her own upbringing in Oklahoma, including a strong focus on family. For newer factors like the first laugh party, she seeks guidance from the child’s biological grandmother and his four foster siblings.
QEW Case out of the Colorado Court of Appeals [ICWA]
The question is whether the parent should have had attorney representation during the interview with the qualified expert witness. This is a really interesting question, especially given that in this case the mother was assigned her own Guardian ad Litem. The Court ultimately held that she did not have the right to representation during the interview and upheld the termination of parental rights.
Unpublished QEW Opinion out of Texas Court of Appeals
This is the second time recently a well-reasoned QEW case has been unreported, which means it can’t be used as precedent. The first was in Washington. In re K.S., 199 Wash.App. 1034 (2017). This one is out of the Texas Court of Appeals.
First, because I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately about foster parent issues, here are the witnesses who testified:
Only three witnesses testified at the termination hearing: S.P., R.C.P.’s foster parent, and Glendalys Mojica Gonzalez, the caseworker assigned to the case. The Department did not designate or proffer any of the witnesses as an expert, and the trial court did not make any rulings or findings regarding expert witnesses.
The Court then analyses the 2015 Guidelines (which it appears would have been governing this case since it was started in October 2016, i.e. initiated prior to December, 2016. 25 CFR 23.143) and concludes none of those people are QEWs.
The failure of the Department to produce the kind of competent evidence expressly required under the Act to support termination constitutes a failure of proof. See City of Keller,
168 S.W.3d at 812 (“[W]hen expert testimony is required, lay evidence . . . is legally insufficient.”); see also Martin v. State, 222 S.W.3d 532, 537 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, pet. denied) (reversing involuntary-commitment order as unsupported by legally sufficient evidence where State
failed to introduce expert testimony as required by involuntary-commitment statute). Therefore, even viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, because the record does not contain the statutorily required qualified-expert testimony, we conclude that the evidence is legally insufficient to meet the standard of proof under section 1912(f). See Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319; see also In re V.L.R., 507 S.W.3d at 796–97 (reversing judgment terminating parental rights because not supported by testimony of qualified expert witness as required under ICWA); Doty-Jabbaar, 19 S.W.3d at 877 (same).
ICWA Expert Witness Case out of Colorado
Opinion here. The Colorado Court disagrees with holdings in Montana and Michigan on the same issue–what does a qualified expert witness have to say for it to count under 25 U.S.C. 1912(f).
Congress’s primary reason for requiring qualified expert testimony was to prevent courts from basing decisions “solely upon the testimony of social workers who possessed neither the specialized professional education nor the familiarity with Native [American] culture necessary to distinguish between cultural variations in child-rearing practices and actual abuse or neglect.” Steven H., 190 P.3d at 185 (quoting L.G. v. State, 14 P.3d 946, 952- 53 (Alaska 2000)). This purpose would not necessarily be furthered by a requirement that an expert witness recite the precise language of 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f).
Although [the Regulations and Guidelines] emphasize the need for a qualified expert witness to offer testimony supporting a finding regarding likely damage to the child, they stop short of demanding a verbatim recitation of the statutory standard by the expert.
Additionally, the Department presented testimony from a
qualified expert witness under ICWA — a social worker with Navajo Children and Family Services. The social worker did not directly opine that the child would suffer damage in mother’s care. Rather, when asked to give her opinion regarding whether the child would suffer serious emotional or physical harm if returned to a parent, the social worker indicated that mother had not fulfilled the treatment requirements to address the reasons for the child being placed in the Department’s custody. The social worker also testified that the recent domestic violence issues between the parents were concerning.
Burden of Proof ICWA Case out of South Dakota
In this case, Mother challenged the QEW and the burden of proof requirement for termination of parental rights. The concurrence is particularly useful:
The circuit court in this case found many of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt where that was not the correct standard of proof and failed to find certain facts beyond a reasonable doubt where applying that high standard is required. This may indicate that confusion exists on the applicable standards of proof in abuse or neglect proceedings, including those where ICWA applies. I write specially to clarify the standards of proof by which the court must issue certain findings.
The concurrence also explains that South Dakota is a state that requires active efforts to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a termination of parental rights. Contra State of New Mexico v. Yodell. B. (N.M. Ct App. 2015)
Published California ICWA Opinion on QEW and Active Efforts
Among other things, this case demonstrates some of the confusion going on in the courts about WHEN certain provisions of ICWA are required. Must there be a qualified expert witness at disposition hearings? What if the court makes a finding about returning a child to a parent at a disposition hearing? And finally, who is responsible for getting QEW testimony?
(The answer to the last one is the State. Not the tribe, not the parent, and it’s not waive-able [though that happens] since it’s the evidentiary burden of the State to have a QEW who agrees with termination or foster care.)