California lawmakers support legislation to increase compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act

Pictured: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.(Image: Screenshot of xavierbecerra.com courtesy Lisa J. Ellwood, Indian Country Today correspondent, press pool manager, and opinion editor)

Sponsored by the California Tribal Families Coalition, AB 685 and AB 686 address issues identified in the ICWA Compliance Task Force Report presented to California Attorney General Becerra

News Release

California Tribal Families Coalition

The California Tribal Families Coalition (CTFC) is pleased to sponsor Assembly Bills 685 and 686 to increase compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) by providing increased funding for legal counsel for tribes, clarifying placement approval standards for Indian children, increasing funding for home approvals, and providing remote access options for tribes at court appearances.

Supported by the California Attorney General’s Office as well as Assemblymember James Ramos (D-Highland), Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) and Assemblymember Marie Waldron (R-Escondido), the bipartisan legislation addresses issues directly raised in the 2017 Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance Task Force Report presented to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“In order for Indian Child Welfare Act to function as it should, tribes need to have sufficient funding for legal counsel so that they are not forced to rely on social workers to represent their interests in Indian Child Welfare Act proceedings,” stated Assemblymember Ramos, co-author of AB 685 and AB 686. “We also need to clarify standards and decrease barriers to tribal participation so that we can achieve our ultimate goal: ensuring Native American children retain ties to their tribe and cultural heritage. I urge my colleagues to join us in this bipartisan effort.”

AB 685 provides legal counsel for tribes in dependency cases where the Indian Child Welfare Act applies, increasing compliance and reducing the number of appeals related to Indian Child Welfare Act cases. Many tribes do not have resources sufficient to retain legal counsel, leaving tribes as the sole unrepresented party in Indian Child Welfare Act child welfare cases. Tribes often rely on social workers to represent their interest in these matters, which has been cited as an impediment to Indian Child Welfare Act compliance.

AB 686 enhances Indian Child Welfare Act compliance by clarifying placement approval standards for Indian children and increasing funding for home approvals. It also ensures that Indian tribes can fully participate in Indian Child Welfare Act cases by providing remote access options for court appearances.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra has continued to demonstrate strong support of Indian Child Welfare Act, stating in January that “Indian Child Welfare Act has a strong track record of not only helping to ensure the continued vitality of Native American tribes but also of benefitting children and families as well … Indian Child Welfare Act has been a key factor in reforming our child welfare system to stop the erosion of Tribal sovereignty caused by decades of unnecessary removals of Native American children from their families.”

California is home to the nation's largest Native American population and also leads the nation in Indian Child Welfare Act-related appeals, with more than 125 cases appealed in 2018 out of the 206 cases appealed nationwide.

“Indian Child Welfare Act is a vitally important law that protects Native American children from being separated from their tribal communities and their culture,” said Delia M. Sharpe, California Tribal Families Coalition Executive Director. “AB 685 and AB 686 will help increase the participation of tribes in child custody cases where Indian Child Welfare Act applies.”

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to protect the interests of Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families. However, state courts and county agencies continue to fall short of meeting the spirit and mandates of the law. While progress has been made, major concerns persist regarding Indian Child Welfare Act compliance and how Indian Child Welfare Act proceedings are conducted.

The 2017 Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance Task Force Report developed by tribal leaders, tribal attorneys and tribal court officials from across the state outlined how insufficient services, severe underfunding, and other barriers prevent tribal participation and inadequate reunification efforts undermine the effectiveness and promise of Indian Child Welfare Act.

The report, which was presented to Attorney General Becerra, also outlined recommendations for improving compliance with the landmark civil rights measure.

AB 685 and AB 686 follow directly from these recommendations and will help ensure greater compliance with Indian Child Welfare Act across the state.

Comprised of tribes and tribal leaders from across the state, the California Tribal Families Coalition’s mission is to promote and protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal children and families, which are inherent tribal governmental functions and are at the core of tribal sovereignty and tribal governance. 

For information, please visit https://www.caltribalfamilies.org/.

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