I’ve been watching the qualified expert witness decisions coming in that are finally starting to wrestle with both the Regulations and the Guidelines, and I think they are narrowing in on conflicting requirements that will likely make it increasingly difficult to find a QEW.
First, the purpose of the QEW is for the state to find a witness (hopefully in collaboration with the Indian child’s tribe) that agrees a child needs to go into foster care or agree with a termination of parental rights. This is an attempt to address state bias, obviously, in the removal of Native children. The law only requires the testimony of the QEW support the findings, and doesn’t specifically require magic language from the QEW. The Regulations are fairly thin on the requirements of a QEW but there are two major elements:
“A qualified expert witness must be qualified to testify regarding whether the child’s continued custody by the parent or Indian custodian 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. 23.122
This decision from New Mexico finds the QEW was qualified on the social and cultural standards, but was not on the serious emotional or physical damage to the child. There is a similar decision on this from Alaska, and really problematic language in the Guidelines that is leading to the focus on the specialized expertise of the witness regarding the ability to testify about continued custody and a de-emphasis on the social and cultural standards of the Tribe. I personally have mixed feelings about this, but I would advise practitioners to read this opinion especially as to laying the foundation for the testimony of the QEW. And I’d also reiterate my usual advice that Tribes can always introduce their OWN witness to address cultural tribal issues.