A message to the Goldwater Institute, a conservative organization that has repeatedly attacked the Indian Child Welfare Act. The late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), the namesake of the organization, voted in favor of the 1978 law. Photo: Defend ICWA

Supreme Court turns away another conservative attack on Indian Child Welfare Act

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned away another conservative attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Without comment, the justices on Tuesday denied a petition in Renteria v. Superior Court of California, Tulare County. The move, which came in an order list, ends a lawsuit which claimed ICWA was based on "race" and should be declared unconstitutional.

"To understand what is at stake here, consider the rules ICWA imposes on cases involving Indian children—and how those rules differ from state law standards" the conservative Goldwater Institute wrote in a petition to the high court. "Compared to California’s race-neutral law of child welfare, ICWA’s rules provide children with less protection and make it harder to find them the safe, loving adoptive homes they need."

The case arose out of a custody dispute over three girls whose parents were killed in a December 2015 crash in California. The girls' father, Matthew Cuellar, was a citizen of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.

The tribe asserted jurisdiction over the placement of the children but non-Indian relatives of the girls sought custody instead. In February, a judge in California agreed that ICWA applied to the case, ensuring the tribe plays a role in their future.

"It is undisputed that father here was a member of an Indian tribe. It is also undisputed that the children are members of a tribe or eligible to be members of a tribe," Judge Nathan D. Ide wrote in the order.

"Finally, there is no dispute that father maintained contact and custody of the children from birth until his untimely death," Ide continued.

Efrim and Talisha Renteria, who have set up a "tribalpredator" website that attempts to associate the tribe with violence and crime, appealed the order but were rebuffed. That's when the Goldwater Institute, which has attacked ICWA in other courts around the nation, jumped in with the Supreme Court petition.

The efforts of Goldwater and other conservative groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation, have not been successful. Last October, the Supreme Court turned away another race-based attack on ICWA that arose in Arizona.

Goldwater and Pacific Legal rallied to each others' side in both Renteria and S.S. v. Colorado River Indian Tribes, the case denied last October.

Memorial March To Honor Our Lost Children

Fifteen years ago, Native people in Sioux City sought the help of Iowa state leaders. Their anger turned into the Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children.
'Stand up, fight back!' -- Annual march to honor lost Native children continues. All photos by Kevin Abourezk

Congress enacted ICWA in 1978 to address the high rates of Indian children being separated from their tribal families and their tribal communities. The law recognizes the sovereign interests of tribes in Indian child welfare cases.

Decades later, tribal advocates say compliance has been spotty, with California and South Dakota often singled out as problem states. During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took steps to strengthen the law. Some of those initiatives are being challenged by conservative groups and the adoption industry.

The Supreme Court's last ICWA case was Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices held that the law did not apply to the case of a child from the Cherokee Nation because they said the Cherokee father never had custody.

The Renterias, who took DNA tests to bolster their claims that they are also "Indian," relied heavily on the June 2013 ruling but Judge Ide said the situation involving the Shingle Springs girls and their father was different.

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