- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Alaska officials say a new federal rule that will require judges to ask whether a child is a Native American during foster-care and adoption proceedings will help prevent litigation over Native children in state custody.

The rule issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs last week is set to go into effect in December as part of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The 1978 law aims to place Native American children with relatives or another Native American family, KTOO-FM reported (https://bit.ly/1U7JEPh).

Christy Lawton, director of Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services, said the regulation brings clarity to the federal law, potentially reducing the likelihood of legal battles surrounding a child’s placement.

“This is going to be entirely helpful for us,” Lawton said. “I think that these rules are providing a lot more clarity to areas of practice that have been somewhat gray and open for interpretation. I think It’s going to reduce, potentially, future litigation.”

Under the rule, judges must also ask about a child’s status as a tribal member during hearings to determine whether or not a mother or father’s parental rights will be terminated.

The rule comes as Native American children across the country are removed from their homes at disproportionately high rates. In Alaska, Native children are often moved to Anchorage or other urban centers in an attempt to provide more access to services to help a child and parent, according to Matt Newman, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

“We saw these situations where time and time again children were being placed in Anchorage or Mat-Su or on the Railbelt road system under the premise that they would be returned or reunified with their communities and their families, only to have the opposite eventually happen,” Newman said. “Once you’re in Anchorage or you’re in the urban centers, you stay there.”

Efforts have been underway in Alaska to make it easier for Native children to remain with extended family or with tribal members in adoption cases. The state issued emergency regulations in March 2015 that essentially formalized any contact, such as a phone call from a family member, regarding the immediate placement of a child as a request to initiate adoption of foster care placement.

Last month, Alaska lawmakers codified the emergency regulations into a bill, which Gov. Bill Walker made a priority for the Legislature.

That effort came after the Alaska Supreme Court declined to reconsider a case last year in which a Native infant girl from the western Alaska village of Tununak was adopted by a non-Native Anchorage couple. The child’s grandmother had told the state she wanted custody of the child, but a superior court judge determined that the woman had not formally filed to adopt her.


Information from: KTOO-FM, https://www.ktoo.org

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