Tribes reject proposal to change law dealing with child custody
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Monday, December 03, 2012
12/03/12 at 4:15 AM
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A Tulsa woman's recent proposal to update a federal law governing how tribes assume custody from state child welfare agencies has drawn criticism from organizations working to keep the law as is.
The Indian Child Welfare Act gives tribes the ability to assume custody over children who have been placed in the custody of the state. It was written in the 1970s in response to a growing number of tribal children being taken into state custody without tribal involvement.
A court battle earlier this year in South Carolina resulted in a father, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen, gaining custody of his 2-year-old daughter whose mother gave her up for adoption when she was born.
The case went to the state's supreme court, where justices used the Indian Child Welfare Act in their decision.
Dawn Ferrill, a former Tulsa foster parent, is trying to petition Oklahoma lawmakers to push for updates to the law.
Ferrill had two young siblings in her care for three months before the children were placed into a tribal foster home.
"It's hard enough being moved away from your family, but then you get settled in with a new family and you bond and then you have to go again to another stranger's home," Ferrill said. "The kids were moved, and it was very traumatic."
The South Carolina decision garnered national attention and fueled groups on either side of the issue.
Terry Cross, the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said ICWA is a very simple law that does not need to be changed, although his organization would support increasing oversight to better apply ICWA.
"ICWA is very carefully constructed to balance the interest of the biological parent, the interest of the child and interests of the tribe," Cross said. "And those three things are balanced across the law. And the interest of the child are paramount in that relationship."
Cross said the law already has provisions that give courts the ability to deny tribal custody if there is good cause not to.
Further, children affected by ICWA would benefit from more oversight and funding of the law's application, but the law itself is working as it was intended, Cross said.
Ferrill said she supports the law's overall purpose but sides with groups arguing for amendments that limit when children can be placed in tribal child welfare systems after they've already been placed in the state's system.
In Oklahoma, 128 children are currently in tribal custody, according to DHS records.
Additionally, 1,478 children in state custody are eligible for tribal custody among 37 Oklahoma tribes with child welfare programs.
Todd Hembree, Cherokee Nation attorney general, said the law is an important piece of legislation to the Cherokee Nation and all tribes because it was federal recognition that tribal heritage was important to the survival of the tribe.
"For decades, the official policy (of the U.S. government) was the dissemination and destruction of Indian tribes," Hembree said. "So this one act was a law that said that tribes should exist."
Hembree said the Cherokee Nation is completely against any amendment or repeal of ICWA.
ICWA is a simple and plainly worded law that gives the same respect to tribal sovereignty as states, Hembree said.
"The most valuable asset any tribe has is their children," Hembree said.
Hembree said his only desire for change in the issue is that adoption attorneys would become more familiar with it across the nation so they can better navigate issues that arise.
Tribal foster care by the numbers
1,478: Number of children in Department of Human Services' custody eligible for tribal custody.
128: Children statewide in tribal custody being monitored by DHS.
37: Number of tribes in Oklahoma with a foster care system that enables DHS reimbursement for care.
Original Print Headline: Tribes support custody law
Jarrel Wade 918-581-8367
The adoption case involving little Veronica is one pitting the South Carolina couple who adopted her against her biological father who was recently awarded custody of the child and brought her to Oklahoma. AP file