Justice
12:07 pm
Thu June 27, 2013

How a Supreme Court decision affects Michigan Tribes

In the slew of recent Supreme Court decisions there are people feeling like winners (LGBT married couples perhaps) and losers (voting rights and workplace discrimination advocates among them). American Indian tribes also had a decision come down in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl that could profoundly affect Indian children and families.  

Tribes see the case as a loss. But, the effects of the case are not likely to be widely felt in the Indian community. That is particularly true for Michigan's tribes. 

The case pitted an American Indian biological father against non-Indian adoptive parents (Radiolab has a full exploration of the case and one of the rare interviews with the father). At issue was the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA. The law was passed to put an end to long-standing, nationwide practices where states and child welfare workers removed Indian children from their families without good reason.

The high court did not side with father, and sent the case back down to the lower court to figure out with whom the child should continue to live. The case has already been devastating for all of the families involved and will likely to continue to be so. 

But the court did not gut the law, so the decision need not have a devastating effect on Tribes efforts to keep children out of the child welfare system or make a stay in the system shorter.

Kathryn Fort is a law professor at Michigan State University's Indigenous Law and Policy Center.  Of the ruling she said, "I was disappointed in the ruling but not surprised."

Michigan passed state version of ICWA last year. It is similar to the federal law, but is clearer. Therefore potentially offers state Tribes an opportunity to better protect their children than Tribes in other places.

As to how the Supreme Court decision will affect Michigan's law, Fort says "This wasn't decided on constitutional grounds. It was decided on the text of ICWA." She continues, "My understanding is that the state statute remains intact. There is no reason that this should affect the state statute."

Tribes are expected to push ahead in their efforts to educate child welfare workers about the state law.