American Indian Leaders Call for DOJ Investigation of ICWA Violations

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Terry Cross, Executive Director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

Terry Cross, Executive Director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

PORTLAND, OREGON — Today, National Indian Child Welfare Association Executive Director Terry Cross (Seneca) formally requested the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division launch an investigation into the unlawful treatment of American Indian and Alaska Native children in private adoptions and public child welfare systems.

Cross presented a letter on behalf of four leading national Native American organizations—the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund, and the Association on American Indian Affairs—during a meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland hosted by Department of Justice Acting Attorney General for Civil Rights Jocelyn Samuels.

The organizations are calling for the Department of Justice to take a stronger role in enforcing compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), a piece of landmark legislation passed to offset the cultural bias Congress found in state child welfare and private adoption systems that resulted in the unwarranted removal of nearly one in three Native children from their families.

The organizations assert, “There is no question that where ICWA is applied, it has been integral to keeping countless Native American families together.” However, the letter continues, “It is well known that there is minimal federal oversight over the implementation of, and compliance with, ICWA.”

The letter cites commonly reported infractions such as transporting Indian children across state lines in order to sidestep ICWA, the disregard of ICWA’s placement preferences, adoption attorneys encouraging circumvention of the law, and judges denying tribes a presence during child custody proceedings, among others.

“These stories highlight patterns of behavior that are, at best, unethical and, at worst, unlawful,” the letter states. “Although these civil rights violations are well-known and commonplace, they continue to go unchecked and unexamined. So long as this is the case, Native children and families will continue to be victims of the very systems designed to protect them.”

As part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division Indian Country Working Group, Ms. Samuels expressed strong interest in meeting with leaders of Native American tribal governments and Native American advocacy groups to discuss civil rights issues that are significant to Native Americans and tribal communities.

Terry Cross stated, “I am very moved by the Department of Justice’s willingness to work with Indian country and hear these pressing concerns. Our positive relationship and ongoing conversations with the DOJ convince me that this is a strong step toward addressing the longstanding issues that are essential to the future of American Indian and Alaska Native children, tribes, and cultures. It is heartening to see that the DOJ recognizes this fact.”

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