Clinic Students Help to Bring Tribal Children Home

April 27, 2010

Recognizing that there is "no resource more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes," the U.S. Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 to stem the alarmingly high percentage of Indian children being placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes. For several years, student attorneys in Colorado Law’s American Indian Law Clinic have represented the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in child welfare cases in Colorado's juvenile courts and the Colorado Court of Appeals. Stopping the trend of adoptions by non-Indians became the mutual focus of the Tribe and Clinic. "Although these non-Indian adoptive parents love these children and will no doubt care for them well, there is nothing more heartbreaking than to realize that these tribal children will never experience what is to be a Northern Cheyenne in the fullest sense," says Professor Jill Tompkins.Utilizing a wraparound approach for providing legal services to the Tribe, the student attorneys took on number of legal service projects for the Tribe in addition to continuing to litigate Colorado ICWA cases. Through a generous grant from the CU-Boulder Outreach Committee, the students conducted a community-wide training in February at the Chief Dull Knife Tribal College on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. It focused on improving tribal response times to notice of Colorado ICWA cases and improving the rate of children placed in tribal, instead of non-Indian, homes. Through the training workshop, it became clear that more tribal foster and adoptive homes could be available if the tribe developed its own foster home licensing standards and streamlined its foster and adoptive parent application form. Student Attorney Megan Bentley '10 got to work immediately. Co-directed by Associate Professor Doreen Martinez, of CU's Ethnic Studies department, Professor Tompkins is producing a tribal foster home recruitment video, "Family is Cheyenne.” It also became apparent that the form used by some Colorado counties to gather information about a child's tribal ancestry and provide notice to tribes of potential ICWA cases was inadequate. Student attorneys Kathryn Urbanowicz '10 and Zachary Wagner '11 developed a new JDF form 567 "American Indian/Alaska Native Indian Child Welfare Assessment Form" that became ready for statewide implementation in April. Although Northern Cheyenne children continue to be the subject of child welfare cases in Colorado courts, the student attorneys' efforts have been paying off in recent cases. The clinic has been able to intervene on behalf of the tribe sooner, and in one instance helped to ensure that an Indian baby was returned to her mother and the two were able to return home to the welcoming arms of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.