Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis letter to the Community regarding ICWA case
August 19, 2016
As Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, I write today to clarify what was left out of last week’s media coverage of a disappointing decision from the Arizona Court of Appeals in connection with a state court case involving a now-2-year-old child, A.D., a member of the Gila River Indian Community who is currently in the foster care of a non-Indian couple.
Sadly, A.D. has spent most of her life in the foster care system. The Community has been an active participant in the foster proceedings surrounding A.D. since the proceedings began shortly after her birth. In these proceedings and efforts, the Community has worked closely with the State Department of Child Welfare in a cooperative way to determine what is in A.D.’s best interests.
Recently, in an effort to ensure that the decision about her best interests is made in accordance with the federal law, policy and federal guidelines regarding custody of Native American children, the Community, with the agreement and support of the State Department of Child Welfare, made a request to the State Court in which proceedings were then being held to transfer the case to the Community’s Children’s Court for a determination of what is the best path forward for A.D. As I noted, this was done in accordance the federal law, policy and practice governing such cases, overall, and with the full support and cooperation of the State authorities because they recognize that, consistent with the governing federal law, the best forum to deal with the questions of the best interests of a Native American child is a tribal court that understands the importance and role of the tribe’s history, culture and traditions.
The joint decision by the Community and the State to seek to transfer the case to the Community Children’s Court was challenged, however, by an outside interest group, the Goldwater Institute, that is seeking to use these Indian adoption cases to try and destroy the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). In a decision that ran counter to the law, policy, practice and intent of ICWA, a lower court decided to prevent A.D.’s case from being transferred to the Community’s Children’s Court. Last week, this erroneous decision was upheld on appeal, over the objections of not only the Gila River Indian Community but also the State of Arizona. This ruling disappoints our Community a great deal because it prevents us from being able to fully engage in trying to find a living situation that allows us to keep this precious child a part of our tribal community and raise her within her Native culture.
Protecting Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh children and families has always been a top priority for the Gila River Indian Community and my administration. Even as we determine whether to appeal the ruling in A.D.’s case, we have redoubled our commitment to defending ICWA and participating in the custody proceedings of our children. Our children are an integral part of community and our future. What is disheartening about the case at hand is that those involved in it seem more focused on attacking ICWA than on determining the best interests of A.D.
ICWA works. It’s a good law that for almost 40 years has protected the best interests of Indian children by promoting stability and security among Indian tribes and families. Our people deserve nothing less. Across the United States, Indian children continue to be removed from their birth homes by state authorities at much higher rates than non-Indian children.
ICWA gives tribal governments and courts a protective role in such cases and has helped keep Indian families together and helped Indian children retain their cultural identity and heritage.
Unfortunately, ICWA has come under attack in recent years by the non-Indian adoption industry – which thrives on Indian children – and by legal hired guns from groups like the Goldwater Institute.
If the Goldwater Institute has concerns about how the law is implemented, I urge them to work with tribal governments and organizations on best practices, rather than trying to eliminate a federal law that Senator Barry Goldwater himself supported. The Gila River Indian Community’s priority will continue to do what is best for the general welfare of our people, including our children and families.