Stateline: Indian Child Welfare Act likely headed to Supreme Court
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Fate of Native Children May Hinge on U.S. Adoption Case
By Teresa Wiltz
Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
A case before a federal appeals court could upend an historic adoption law meant to combat centuries of brutal discrimination against American Indians and keep their children with families and tribal communities. For the first time, a few states have sued to overturn the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which Congress enacted in 1978 as an antidote to entrenched policies of uprooting Native children and assimilating them into mainstream white culture. Now, in a country roiled by debates over race and racial identity, there’s a chance the 41-year-old law could be overturned by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered the country’s most conservative court. (The law applies to federally recognized tribes.) Overturning the law, its proponents say, could significantly increase the number of American Indian children adopted into non-Native families.
Hundreds of tribal nations vehemently oppose the lawsuit. They say it threatens the sovereignty of Indian Country and seeks to “return Indian children to the arbitrary and discriminatory whims of state courts and state agencies, unfettered by the centuries-old trust obligations this nation owes to Indian tribes and Indian peoples.” Meanwhile, some states and private adoption attorneys pushing for change argue the Indian Child Welfare Act interferes in state affairs and “requires them to place Indian children in accordance with statutory requirements based on race, rather than the children’s best interests.” Oral arguments in the case were heard last Wednesday in New Orleans. Whatever the outcome, the case is likely headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Brackeen v. Bernhardt pits Texas, Indiana, Louisiana and a coalition of conservative legal groups, including the Goldwater Institute, against the federal government, hundreds of tribal nations, 21 state attorneys general, Native American civil rights groups and child welfare organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Children’s Defense Fund. The plaintiffs, who include several families interested in adopting Native American children and a non-Native biological parent who wants her American Indian child to be adopted by a non-Native family, argue that the law, often called ICWA (pronounced ICK-wah), is race-based and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Tribal nations counter that “Indian” is a political, rather than a racial, designation. The Supreme Court agrees with that classification. In 1974, it said that with federal hiring preferences for American Indians in federally recognized tribes, “preference is political, rather than racial in nature.” The plaintiffs also charge that in enacting the law, Congress exceeded its authority over federal affairs with tribal nations. “I want to see ICWA overturned completely,” said Mark Fiddler, co-counsel on the Brackeen case representing adoptive families, and an enrolled member of the Chippewa Nation. “ICWA has been a miserable failure.”
Brackeen v. Bernhardt: Listen to a federal appeals court debate the future of the Indian Child Welfare Act. #ProudToProtectICWA https://t.co/lE8R1YAyNW— indianz.com (@indianz) March 13, 2019