Wednesday, March 26, 2008

NARF wins case for Alaska's tribal children

Anchorage, AK-On Friday, February 22, the federal District Court in Anchorage, Alaska issued a very important ruling that will benefit all of Alaska’s tribal children. In 2005, the Kaltag Tribe, an Athabascan Tribal village in Interior Alaska totally inaccessible by road with about 250 residents, completed an adoption for one of its youngest tribal members. (Her name is being withheld to protect her privacy.) The then 4-year old needed a safe new home and the Tribe, in its tradition of serving as parent to its people, took custody of her and then put a lot of effort into what is called “due diligence” on each potential parent. Kaltag quickly found her an excellent home with two loving parents. The two adoptive parents, who lived in another village just up the Yukon River, petitioned to formally adopt this little girl. In 2005, the Kaltag Tribal Court completed the adoption and sent the paperwork to the State of Alaska, Bureau of Vital Statistics requesting a new birth certificate for the little girl reflecting the names of her adoptive parents. To the Tribe’s surprise, the State rejected their request on the grounds that the tribe had no jurisdiction to complete an adoption -- even over one of its own tribal members.

The State’s decision conflicted with section 1911 of the Indian Child Welfare Act which provides that States are supposed to give “full faith and credit” to the decisions of Tribal Courts. This means the State is supposed to honor the adoption completed by Kaltag and issue the little girl a new birth certificate. This case presented more than just a pure legal issue however, because without a birth certificate reflecting the names of her adoptive parents, this little girl would not be able to enroll in school, get medical care, travel, or do any of the other activities for which you need your birth certificate. As far as the State was concerned, her adoptive parents were not her parents at all, and so this child was left in legal limbo.

The United States District Court for the District of Alaska put an end to this on February 22nd when they held that the Kaltag Tribe’s adoption order is entitled to full faith and credit and that this little girl is therefore entitled to her new birth certificate. The child was overjoyed when she heard the news and excited that she would finally share the same last name as her parents and all her siblings. She said that now she feels like a real member of the family.

This case is not just about one child. According to the Alaska Judicial Council’s “Directory of Dispute Resolution in Alaska Outside Federal and State Courts,” in a one year period Alaska’s Tribes had more children in custody, finalized more adoptions, granted more guardianships, returned more children home, and had fewer children in foster care and for less time than the State. Alaska’s Tribal Councils and Tribal Courts are a critical piece of care of children in Alaska, and NARF is delighted that their decisions will be afforded the full faith and credit that they deserve.