Monday, 8 June 2015

Proposed Binding Rule on the Indian Child Welfare Act

The comment period has now passed for the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) regulations that were proposed on March 20, 2015 through their publication in the Federal Register. These rules, if adopted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs become binding on states. In other words, states have no choice but to follow them. These proposed rules come on the heels of up-dated ICWA guidelines—which are not binding upon states in the same way that rules are—published in the Federal Register on February 25, 2015.
Image result for child welfare
Public meetings and tribal consultation sessions about the proposed rule have been held. Comments on the proposed rules were to have been submitted by May 19, 2015.

Having binding rules is an important step forward in ensuring that states follow ICWA, and that the rights of American Indian children, their families, communities and tribes are recognized and respected. This puts a significant barrier in the way of courts trying to evade the application of ICWA by creating doctrines such as the “Existing Indian Family” exception (EIFE) to ICWA. The guidelines already make clear that the EIFE is not compatible with ICWA and should not be used. The proposed rule does the same—with the clear advantage of doing so from – if the rule is put into force—a position that is binding upon states. Commentary on the proposed rule explains:
 “… the proposed rule clarifies ICWA applicability and codifies that there is no ‘Existing Indian Family Exception (EIF)’ to ICWA. Since first identification of the EIF in 1982, the majority of State appellate courts that have considered the EIF have rejected it as contrary to the plain language of ICWA. Some State legislatures have also explicitly rejected the EIF within their State ICWA statutes. When Congress enacted ICWA, it intended that an ‘‘Indian child’’ was the threshold for application of ICWA. The Department agrees with the States that have concluded that there is no existing Indian family exception to application of ICWA.”

 Both the guidelines and the proposed rules represent important steps towards regaining integrity in the application of ICWA that was lost with the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court in Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl in 2013.

Post written by Sarah Sargent.