Native American groups call for investigation of child welfare procedures

New York Times News ServiceFebruary 6, 2014 

— Several prominent Native American groups on Monday called for the Justice Department to investigate the treatment of Indian children in public child-welfare systems and private adoptions.

In a letter presented to government officials in Portland, Ore., the groups said that a federal law intended to keep Indian children from being removed from their families was being routinely sidestepped.

In their letter, the groups wrote that a lack of federal oversight had led to Indian children being improperly placed with non-Indian families by child welfare workers and that tribal representatives were too often left out of custody proceedings. They also accused adoption agencies of sometimes ignoring the tribal membership of children in their care.

“Although these civil rights violations are well-known and commonplace, they continue to go unchecked and unexamined,” they wrote in the letter, which was signed by the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund and the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The call for an investigation comes at a time when a law enacted to end the practice of separating Indian children from their parents and placing them in boarding schools and foster homes, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, has come under greater scrutiny.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a dispute between the Cherokee father of a child and her white adoptive parents in Charleston, who lost custody after the father stepped forward to say he had not realized she would be put up for adoption. In that case, the court ruled 5-4 that the child should not have been taken from the adoptive parents, because her father had relinquished his parental rights before her birth and because her biological mother had agreed to the adoption.

The child, Veronica, has since been returned to her adoptive parents in South Carolina.

Last week, a federal judge in South Dakota approved class action status for a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two tribes and Indian parents in Pennington County. The suit alleges that Native American children in the county are being removed from their homes in custody hearings, without sufficient protections.

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