Alaska to make changes to Indian Child Welfare Act procedures

A view of the Native Village of Tununak. Photo from Lower Kuskokwim School District

The state of Alaska is making changes to its Indian Child Welfare Act procedures in hopes of keeping tribal children in their communities.

On Wednesday, the state issued emergency regulations to allow relatives, tribal members and other Indian families to step into adoption cases immediately. Previously, a formal petition had to be filed through the court system, a requirement that can be extremely cumbersome, especially for people who live in remote areas of the state.

The regulations expire August 12 so Gov. Bill Walker (I) filed a bill to make the changes permanent. Although passage before the end of the legislative session on Sunday is unlikely, he said he was committed to improving the system.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Indian Child Welfare Act in Alaska

"This is the first step of a journey that we are on to make this better," Walker said at a press conference in Juneau this morning.

The announcement came as Attorney General Craig W. Richards submitted the state's response in Native Village of Tununak v. Alaska, a closely-watched ICWA case. Although he opposed a rehearing that tribes are requesting, he did so only on procedural grounds and said other changes are being considered to ensure Native families don't get lost in the system.

"In conclusion, although the tribe's policy concerns are not grounds for rehearing, the state is moving forward with several policy solutions to address the tribe's concerns," Richard said in the brief yesterday, a copy of which was posted by Turtle Talk.

The emergency regulations speak to one of the main issues in the case. Even though a Native grandmother actively sought custody of her granddaughter, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that ICWA didn't apply because she hadn't filed a formal petition.

The changes won't apply retroactively, Walker noted, so it won't affect the current status of the case. He said they were written to prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

Alaska Native children make up about 20 percent of Alaska's child population. Yet they represent 60 percent out-of-home placements, according to Valerie Davidson, the Commissioner of the of the Department of Health and Social Services

"Despite the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act," Davidson said, "over 40 percent of Alaska Native children ... were not adopted or were not placed with Native families."

"We recognize that it has become more difficult for Alaska Native family members, for extended tribal members and for the tribes to be able to come forth and adopt children," Davidson added.

With the emergency regulations, though, Native family members can join an adoption case with something as simple as a phone call or even an e-mail. Julie Kitka, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the change represents concrete progress.

"I am so proud of today and the efforts of the governor and his team because it's real and impacts children in our state today," Kitka said. "It is not a hypothetical thing. It is real and it is positive."

Alaska Supreme Court Decision:
Native Village of Tununak v. Dep’t of Health & Soc. Servs (September 12, 2014)

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