New ICWA Court aims to keep Native families together

By Cheryl Fairbanks, Director of Native American Budget and Policy Institute

I am overjoyed to share with you that the Second Judicial District Children’s Court in Bernalillo County launched a new court to address historic challenges related to compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted in 1978. Our community has always known, and research shows, that Native children do much better when they stay with their families, extended families, and in their community. That’s why Congress passed ICWA—to help keep Native families together.

This desperately needed court, announced appropriately on Indigenous People’s Day, is meant to uphold the rights of children, families, and tribal communities in a culturally responsive way. It will be reviewing foster care, pre-adoptive, and adoptive placement cases for Native children.  

The Native American Budget and Policy Institute was honored to contribute to the creation of the new court, which was a collaboration of New Mexico’s tribal and state entities. Pegasus Legal Services for Children, New Mexico Kids Matter, Tribal-State Judicial Consortium, New Mexico Tribal Indian Children Welfare Consortium, Corinne Wolfe Center for Child and Family Justice, and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department were also members of the planning team.

Strong families and communities are embedded in indigenous culture. The stronger our community, the healthier are our families and our children. But unfortunately, unnecessary separation of Native families has continued. 

History has shown that Native American children are placed in foster care at a much higher rate than non Indians, ignoring the value of family unification and healing. Even now, social workers often remove children from their homes before exhausting all familial and tribal opportunities for placement. Native families are four times more likely to have their children removed and placed in foster care than their white counterparts. And although progress has been made, out-of-home placements with non-Native homes still occur. 

Structural racism and institutional bias has had a deep impact on how New Mexico’s courts and institutions treat Native families and children both currently and historically. Our communities have been living a continual crisis of cultural annihilation through family separation. 

When Congress passed ICWA, it acknowledged the historic and systemic government policies, like boarding schools, foster care, and adoptions, meant to assimilate Native people and terminate our culture. ICWA was created to protect children’s best interest as well as their cultural heritage. Knowing who they are as tribal citizens and connecting to their families and tribal communities is in the best interest for Native children. ICWA reaffirms the inherent rights of tribal nations to protect their children.

It’s time we upheld and honored that law. ICWA protections are still needed.

In a truly historic moment, the new court helps acknowledge the political status of tribal children and the sovereignty of tribes and Pueblos communities by working government to government with a primary focus on the child and family and preserving culture and communal ties.

The court is led by Honorable Marie Ward, Presiding Judge and Honorable David Eisenberg, Chief Judge of Taos Pueblo Tribal Court. Honorable Catherine Begaye, Special Master, will be the presiding officer over the court. Cases will begin to be heard by January 2020.

Peacemaking Dispute Resolution, which stresses reconciliation over adversarial court processes, will be a culturally responsive option in the court.

The new court will become the sixth ICWA Court in the United States, joining Billings, Montana; Denver and Adams Counties in Colorado; Los Angeles, California; and Duluth, Minnesota.

Proposed cuts to SNAP in House Farm Bill would take food off the table for New Mexico families

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — The House Farm Bill, released yesterday, proposes significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by cutting eligibility for families, penalizing unemployed adults, and other changes. The cuts would make it difficult for millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans to access enough groceries and healthy food. The bill would have a particularly harmful impact on New Mexico, where one in four people rely on SNAP to eat, including 40 percent of the state’s young children.

“We have a shared responsibility to make sure our neighbors and members of our community all have enough to eat and can access healthy food. But these shameful changes to SNAP literally take food off the table for people trying to get by,” said William Townley, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “It is completely backward to take food away from people who are struggling to find work. We know that participating in SNAP helps people get on their feet when they are unemployed.”

SNAP is the nation’s and New Mexico’s most effective anti-hunger program. It helps struggling families and workers access enough food to eat. The vast majority of SNAP participants, 74 percent, are in families with children and 51 percent are in working families. The remainder, 26 percent, are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities. New Mexico families receive SNAP for an average of 14 months, making it a critical temporary support.

The Farm Bill would cut eligibility for SNAP for hundreds of thousands of families by reducing the income limits from 165 percent to 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and removing any options for New Mexico to increase the eligibility level. It would also add bureaucratic requirements that had been removed decades ago, such as requiring New Mexicans to provide their utility bill to their local Income Support Division office.

The proposed bill would require states to mandate and administer an unpaid work program for unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 59, including families with children over six years old. Federal law would no longer permit states to design and implement their own work programs. Up to 121,000 New Mexicans would face termination of SNAP, while tens of thousands of children and other family members would face reduced benefits for up to three years.

Currently, only adults age 18 to 49 without children can be required to do work hours if they are unemployed and waivers are available for areas of high unemployment. New Mexico has consistently qualified for a waiver of any federal work requirements because New Mexico has persistently high unemployment compared with the national average. Under the new bill, most of New Mexico would no longer qualify for a waiver.

The changes to federal food assistance programs would also impact Native American communities in New Mexico, which include 23 sovereign nations. The proposed Farm Bill seeks to eliminate federal requirements that people receiving food assistance on Native American reservations be surveyed to determine which traditional foods are most common in the community.

“Native American nations have the right to govern their affairs and protect the health and well-being of their peoples,” said Cheryl Fairbanks, interim executive director of the Native American Budget and Policy Institute. “Not only do the proposed cuts in the Farm Bill violate the rules and trust between tribal sovereigns and the federal government, they would increase hardship for Native Americans families. We need to make sure that all of our kids have their basic necessities met.”

As of February 2018, 75,637 SNAP participants in New Mexico were Native American. The federal government must engage in government to government consultation prior to changing federal food programs that impact Native Americans. Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache governments must be able to determine the best way to address food security in their own communities.

“We know SNAP works in New Mexico. Cutting it would take food away from people struggling to make ends meet, and from children and working people,” said Townley. “When you are looking for a job, you need to be able to eat.”

The Farm Bill, a piece of legislation renewed every five years, includes the budget for food and agriculture programs, such as crop insurance and subsidies, rural development, SNAP, and other nutrition programs.

For more information on SNAP in New Mexico, go to: http://nmpovertylaw.org/proposed-budget-will-increase-hunger-and-inequality-in-nm-february-2018/