ICWA Requires Active Efforts At Every Stage, Says Nebraska Supreme Court

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The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals decision that expands the effectiveness of the Indian Child Welfare Act (better known as ICWA) in Nebraska. The specific decision, In re Shayla H, says the State still has to provide active efforts for an Indian family even if the child is placed with a parent, so long as the State still retains decision-making power over the child.

Confusing? Well, maybe a little background will help. Ordinarily when a child is removed from his or her parents by the State due to abuse and neglect, the State must make “reasonable efforts” to reunify the family. However, when an Indian child is involved and there is a question of foster care or termination of parental rights, ICWA requires the State to provide “active efforts” (a higher standard of care than “reasonable efforts”) to prevent the breakup of the Indian family.

In this case, the State argued that because the child was placed with the parent, it wasn’t an issue of foster care or termination of parental rights, so the “active efforts” requirement of ICWA shouldn’t apply. But the Supreme Court, in agreeing with the Court of Appeals, said that any time when the legal decision-making power for the child has been removed from the parent (as it had in this case, even though the child was placed with the parent), a foster care placement could arise, and therefore the higher active efforts standard should apply.

But why should there be a different standard in the first place? Why do Indian children get special treatment that non-Indian children don’t enjoy?

From the very beginning of the United States, the country grappled with how to justify taking the lands of the native peoples who were there before. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, enshrined into law the concept of a trust relationship, where the United States owed native Americans a duty of protection in exchange for exercising power over them.

Through the years, that trust relationship has been expressed in different ways, and for much of American history involved attempting to “de-Indian” the native people, guided by the paternalistic idea of “killing the Indian to save the man.”

By the turn of the 20th century, that policy involved the forcible removal of Indian children to boarding schools, where their ceremonial long hair was cut and any expression of their native culture or language was harshly punished. And while the boarding schools were later closed, by the middle of the twentieth century Indian children were being removed from their homes by child protective services at an alarmingly disproportionate rate.

So, in response to that rate of removal, along with the history of the boarding schools and other official Federal policies designed to destroy Indian culture, and recognizing the underlying trust obligation the United States has to the native American people, Congress passed ICWA in 1978 to right some of the wrongs committed in the past.

ICWA has a number of provisions designed to preserve Indian families and provide opportunities for the tribes, rather than state courts, to make decisions with regards to the welfare of Indian children. The “active efforts” standard for Indian children in foster care is part of the attempt by ICWA’s drafters to help ensure that Indian children are removed from Indian families only when the strongest of reasons are present, and that every effort is made to help reunite those Indian families and alleviate the problems that got the State involved in the first place.

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