Placement of native foster children discussed

Improving native foster children’s connection to their culture is the purpose of legislation heard by the Judiciary Committee Jan. 29.

LB928, introduced by the State Tribal Relations Committee, would change provisions of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to:
• clarify the responsibilities of Nebraska child welfare providers by strengthening state law and defining key areas of the ICWA;
• define existing pieces of ICWA; and
• ensure Native American tribes have a voice in judicial hearings involving native children.

“Native American children are more likely to be state wards than their peers,” said Sen. Colby Coash chairperson of the State Tribal Relations Committee. He referred to statistics that show Nebraska has the nation’s third highest rate of native children in foster care and said the state has not changed ICWA since 1985.

“The intent is that if a native child is removed from their home, then a greater effort will be made to place that child with next of kin or at least within the tribal community,” Coash said.

Roger Trudell, Santee Sioux tribal chairman, testified in support of the bill.

“The children, for tribal people, are really considered to be our greatest resource,” Trudell said.

“We have lost a lot of children over the years,” he said, adding that the bill would help the children reestablish their tribal heritage.

Chris Legband, executive director of tribal affairs for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, told her story of being placed in foster care and separated from her brother and sister for 30 years.

“We didn’t know each other existed,” she said, speaking in support of the bill.

“This law fearlessly fights to ensure that the siblings, the culture and the families are kept together,” Legband said.

Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the State Foster Care Review Office, testified in support of LB928 and presented statistics showing that native children make up 8 percent of Nebraska foster children in out-of-home care.

“We know we have a disproportionate minority overrepresentation,” she said, and added that the bill is “a good start in order to deal with the situation.”

Alicia Henderson of the Lancaster county attorney’s office testified in opposition to the bill. She said the Legislature does not have the authority to exceed the bounds of the current federal Indian child welfare laws.

“There are many portions of the bill that we believe are susceptible to a constitutional challenge,” Henderson said.

Douglas County Attorney Amy Schuchman provided neutral testimony. “The county attorney’s office would be hard-pressed to pursue any foster care placement or termination of parental rights action on any Indian child” if the bill were passed, she said.

“It is incredibly difficult getting ahold of the different tribes to even find out whether or not that child is eligible for enrollment in their tribes,” she said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB928.

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