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Indian Child Welfare Act Court team

Yellowstone County District Judge Rod Souza tells the Legislature's Interim State-Tribal Relations Committee about the specialized Indian Child Welfare Act Court that he leads. Court team members pictured are, from left: Assistant Attorney General Brook Baracker-Taylor, expert witness Edie Adams, Souza and guardian ad litem Juli Pierce.

Native American children accounted for 30% of the Montana children in foster care as of Sept. 30, including 472 children under tribal jurisdiction and 679 under state jurisdiction, according the the Montana Division of Child and Family Services.

In 2018, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office filed civil cases to protect 209 Native American children, which was 42% of all neglect and abuse cases filed for the year. Considering that Native American children are less than 10% of the state's under-18 population, they are tremendously overrepresented in the foster care system.

Federal law requires states to make active efforts to keep Indian children in their parents' homes — if they can be kept safe with in-home support and supervision. If that isn't possible, the Indian Child Welfare Act requires states to try placing abused and neglected Native children with family members, then in homes of members of their tribe, or another tribe. Only as a last resort are Native American children allowed to be placed in nonnative foster homes.

There aren't enough Native foster homes for all the Montana kids removed because of neglect or abuse, so many are in licensed non-Native foster homes.

The Yellowstone County District Court is working to improve the outcome for Native children with the Indian Child Welfare Act Court launched 18 months ago with Judge Rod Souza presiding. It is one of only six ICWA courts in the nation.

The ICWA court team includes liaisons with the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Peck tribes. When a child is identified as enrolled or eligible for enrollment in one of those tribes, the case is assigned to Souza and a team of dedicated social workers and attorney collaborate to keep the child safe and to reunify him with his parents, if possible.

Members of the ICWA court team described their work last week to the Montana Legislature's Interim State-Tribal Relations Committee.

"Better communication and collaboration leads to better outcomes for children," Souza said.

The eight members of the ICWA team are dedicated to this program, Souza said, adding that stability is important to building and maintaining the relationships critical to finding the best solutions for each child's case. 

Edie Adams, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and retired social worker, serves on the court team. She has seen "major changes" on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Peck reservations since the ICWA Court started. "Forms have changed, attitudes have changed and it's carrying over to other counties," Adams told the lawmakers.

Ingrid Firemoon, who supervises social workers at Fort Peck Reservation, said she has "a really good relationship" with the ICWA Court. "I really appreciate this ICWA court," Firemoon said. "We need more of them."

"The Indian Child Welfare Act truly is the gold standard when it comes to child protection," Souza said, explaining that ICWA requires states to make "active efforts" to reunite children with parents. That is a higher standard than the "reasonable efforts" law requires the state to make to reunify non-Native families.

Lawmakers got a look at what "active" efforts mean by attending an ICWA court session last week. The parents called before Souza were treated with respect and encouraged in their progress on addiction treatment and obtaining a safe home for their children. Grandparents were involved in caring for the children. In each case, the team had contacted the tribes that had reportedly enrolled the children. It is up to the tribal authorities to determine membership or eligibility for membership. Each tribe has a committee that decides whether to assume jurisdiction in cases involving children of that tribe.

During the State-Tribal Relations committee meeting and later last week during a meeting of the Interim Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee, Native and non-Native speakers commended the ICWA court and called for its practices to be more widely adopted. The problems speakers identified included a broader lack of understanding special needs of Native families and lack of resources: not enough foster homes, challenges in getting kinship care providers licensed to receive reimbursement, too few social workers, support staff and attorneys to represent parents.

We commend both legislative committees for meeting in Billings to hear from people in the county with the state's largest foster care caseload. We call on lawmakers to remedy the shortages that slow help to vulnerable Native and non-Native children.

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