American Academy of Adoption Attorneys Disappointed With New Federal Indian Child Welfare Guidelines

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Nation's largest group of adoption law advocates reacts to the Department of Interior's guidelines concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act.

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We are shocked by the process by which these guidelines were promulgated and published, and even more so by what we perceive to be a failure to provide legal protections for children, especially children in the foster care system.

Washington, DC (PRWEB) April 21, 2015 - The nation’s largest constituent group of adoption attorneys, law professors, and judges is reacting to the Department of Interior’s recently issued guidelines from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act(ICWA), a federal law established in 1978 to protect Native American children, families and tribes.

In a statement given by the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA), President Laurie Goldheim says:

“Several months ago, the Department of Interior, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), advised our Academy and other interested child welfare groups that there would be an opportunity to provide comments and feedback to any proposed revisions to the BIA’s federal ICWA guidelines. However, the BIA recently published final amended guidelines and made them effective immediately without input from AAAA or other organizations.

“As distinguished professionals in the field of adoption and foster care, we and many other groups that have been working in the courts and the child welfare system are appalled by this surprise publication issued without the review of or feedback from groups who have been in the field for many years working directly with those families and children who we believe may be negatively impacted the most by these guidelines.

“As a nonprofit organization of experts, we are committed to the ethical practice of adoption law. It is our mission to support and advocate for the rights of families and to consider the interest of all parties, especially children. We believe that there are entire sections of the newly published BIA guidelines that completely disregard the best interest of children.”

“We are shocked by the process by which these guidelines were promulgated and published, and even more so by what we perceive to be a failure to provide legal protections for children, especially children in the foster care system. For example, in cases involving the removal of a child from his or her placement (even if the child will suffer serious harm), the court is directed not to consider attachment or bonding issues. The new guidelines also state that the ‘best interest of the child’ is not a consideration, thus treating them as possessions rather than human beings with rights of their own.

“As long-time protectors of the best interest of children, the Academy is stunned by the process by which these new guidelines were formulated. While the guidelines are only recommendations and do not have the authority of federal-enacted law or federal regulations, if these guidelines are given weight by the courts and child welfare agencies, we believe children will most definitely be hurt. We are committed to ensuring that every child has the best chance for a positive and fair outcome in the judicial system. We urge the Department of Interior to reevaluate how these guidelines were drafted and issued, and allow the Academy and other organizations who work in the field with families and children to be involved in and given an opportunity to be part of the process.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was established by Congress more than 30 years ago to address the issue of the mass removal of Native American children from reservations by state welfare agencies. The law was enacted to protect “the relationship between Indian tribes and Indian children domiciled on the reservation.”

Mark Demaray, former board member and past president of the Academy and practicing adoption attorney in Washington state, explains what he and his peers witness first-hand: “While the original intention of Congress was good, what we have seen is a federal law that is not always clear or understood by the courts. This too often results in a negative impact on children and biological parents who do not have, and would not have, any connection whatsoever to any tribe other than biology, and oftentimes through extreme distant ancestry. There is a real concern over these amended guidelines and how they may be interpreted, and the possible violation of a child’s constitutional due process and equal protection rights.”

Goldheim acknowledges there are holes in the adoption and foster care system that need to be fixed. She says the Academy’s desire to provide input for the BIA’s guidelines is two-fold: “The first is to collaborate in order to repair holes. We recognize that in cases like those taking place in South Dakota, stronger guidelines need to be established to address the systemic problems negatively impacting Native Americans. But second, we want to make sure that the best interest of children, regardless of their race or ethnic background, is paramount when child-focused guidelines or laws are established.”

The Academy says it welcomes the opportunity to work with the United States Attorney General, the staff at the BIA and all interested organizations to ensure that federal guidelines are developed in a way that respects the rights of all and, most importantly, does not harm any child.

“We have been working for many years with families and children who are directly impacted by these laws and guidelines, and we want to be a part of the solution,” says Demaray. “No one wants to witness our system revert to a time before ICWA with the problems of removal of many Native American children from their families and tribes.”

Goldheim, Demaray and their colleagues plan to work closely with other advocacy groups in the adoption and foster care field to encourage the BIA to meet with them in the very near future to present their concerns and provide feedback and suggestions for revisions to the recently amended ICWA guidelines.

The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys is a nonprofit organization of attorneys, judges, and law professors throughout the United States and Canada. Its Fellows have distinguished themselves in the field of adoption law and foster care law, and are dedicated to the highest standards of practice. The Academy’s mission is to support the rights of all children to live in safe, permanent homes with loving families, to protect the interests of all parties to adoptions and foster care, and to assist in the orderly and legal processing of these matters. The Academy’s work includes promoting the reform of adoption and foster care laws, and disseminating information on ethical practices in these areas of the law. The Academy regularly conducts seminars for attorneys, judges, Indian tribes and the public regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and the rights of birth parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, Indian tribes and, most importantly, the children. More information about the Academy and its mission can be found at http://www.adoptionattorneys.org.

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