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.

New Native American Budget and Policy Institute seeks to empower indigenous communities to effect systemic change

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, NM — The new Native American Budget and Policy Institute (the Institute) will launch at an event Tuesday at Tamaya Resort located in Santa Ana Pueblo. The Institute will conduct research, budget and policy analysis, social justice advocacy, litigation, and community lawyering to empower Native American communities to create self-determined and systematic change that will improve their health, education, and economic well-being.

The Institute is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy of the University of New Mexico, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. It is funded, in part, by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF). The Institute is an outgrowth of the work and ideas of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School.

“Our Native American communities deserve to be healthy, educated, and empowered,” said Cheryl Fairbanks, Esq., Institute Interim Executive Director (Tlingit/Tsimpshian). “We have the opportunity at this Institute to develop indigenous policies, which will have a positive effect to justify and access the much needed funding for our tribes. We are not the Indian problem; we are the Indian solution. This Institute is solution oriented and will provide the basis for bringing constructive change to our children, families, and communities here in New Mexico.”

The Institute seeks to forge an unprecedented collaborative pathway to racial equity in New Mexico and across the nation. By working in cooperation with Native American scholars at UNM, graduates of the Pueblo Indian Doctoral Program, as well as with tribal elders, the Institute will coordinate research activity across the state to improve public policy decisions at all levels of government through a Native American lens. The Institute will work in cooperation with the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School and utilize the resources available at UNM as well as the expertise of the RWJF Center for Health Policy and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. It will also engage and mentor young Native American researchers and students in a variety of projects.

“As indigenous peoples, we have survived systemic oppressive governmental policies that sought to terminate our languages, our culture, and our way of life. Today it’s important that laws and policies are informed with a tribal perspective in a new collaborative way,” said Alvin Warren, Kellogg Foundation Program Officer for New Mexico programs. “We have learned from past assimilation policies, and we can now move forward to effect change for future generations.”

The Institute will soon develop the initial leadership structure and strategic plan with direction from its Governance Council, sworn in today, which includes representatives from the Pueblos and Tribes of New Mexico with extensive experience in leadership, law, medicine, behavioral health, education, and cultural literacy.

“We are in a new era of developing laws and policies based on our tribal core values, which have withstood the test of time. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, and it is their values that will enable us to heal and move forward,” said Regis Pecos, Leadership Institute Co-Director at the Santa Fe Indian School and Native American Budget and Policy Institute Co-Founder (Cochiti). “The Institute will provide a venue for collaboration, healing, and unity. Together, we can move forward in the spirit of respect and understanding, so we can truly make a difference here in New Mexico.”

One of the new organization’s first activities is a series of meetings, “Keeping the Child at the Heart of the Circle,” with partners that will start Wednesday. The colloquia will focus on incorporating culture, tradition, and healing into judicial systems. For example, one meeting will discuss offering a resiliency court and a peace circle model as options to improve current legal processes. Another panel of experts will share their knowledge on tribal, state, and federal relations.

In addition to Fairbanks, Institute staff includes Jasmine Yepa, JD who serves as Policy and Budget Analyst (Jemez). The Institute’s Governance Council includes Robert Apodaca, Motiva Corporation COO, former U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant Chief of the West under the Obama administration; Hon. Arthur Blazer, Mescalero Apache President (Mescalero Apache); Dr. Gayle Chacon, Jemez Health and Human Services Interim Director (Diné); Hon. Walter Dasheno, former Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo (Santa Clara); Tara Gatewood, Native America Calling Host and Producer (Isleta/Diné); Dr. Michael Lipsky, Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow; Dr. Ken Lucero, Field Officer for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (Zia/Cochiti); Patricia Salazar Ives, Esq.,Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP Partner; Dr. Joseph Suina, UNM College of Education Professor Emeritus and former Governor of Cochiti Pueblo (Cochiti); Ingeborg Vicenti, Dulce Public Schools Mental Health Therapist (Jicarilla Apache); and Hon. Robert Yazzie, Native Nations Institute International Advisory Council Member at the University of Arizona and Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation (Diné).

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has supported the work of the Institute through a grant to the Regents of UNM of $1.5 million for a period of five years. Dr. Gabriel R. Sanchez, RWJF Center for Health Policy Executive Director, serves as the Principal Investigator of the grant.