In another opinion issued today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the adoptive parents over the rights of the biological father in a case that involves questions about the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Baby Girl is a case in which a woman from Oklahoma agreed to allow a South Carolina couple to adopt her newborn daughter after the baby’s biological father disclaimed any interest in raising the child. The biological father was estranged from the biological mother and provided no support during the mother’s pregnancy, so the couple would normally not have needed his consent to adopt the child. However, when he learned of the planned adoption, he objected. And because he is a registered member of a Native American tribe, the lower courts ruled that a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), barred the adoption. As a result, the South Carolina Supreme Court gave custody of the girl to the biological father.
The Court had before it two competing interpretations of the ICWA: the more expansive version, advocated by the biological father, argued that ICWA applies whenever a court is considering whether to terminate parental rights of a Native American parent; the competing interpretation, advanced by the adoptive parents, argues that ICWA’s coverage is limited to the kinds of cases that Congress most likely had in mind when it passed ICWA — namely, those in which social workers and other government officials are seeking to remove Native American children from an existing Native American family. Today, in a five-to-four opinion, the Court adopted the latter interpretation.
The ICWA was instituted to prevent the removal for adoption of Native American children from their homes and tribes.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. Congress passed ICWA in 1978 in response to the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies. The intent of Congress under ICWA was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families” (25 U.S.C. § 1902). ICWA sets federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings involving an Indian child who is a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.
ICWA is an integral policy framework on which tribal child welfare programs rely. It provides a structure and requirements for how public and private child welfare agencies and state courts view and conduct their work to serve tribal children and families. It also acknowledges and promotes the role that tribal governments play in supporting tribal families, both on and off tribal lands. However, as is the case with many laws, proper implementation of ICWA requires vigilance, resources, and advocacy.