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Adoption Case Pits Tribal Court Against State Judiciary System

An adoption case in Alaska recently became a test of the tribal court's legal authority to remove the parental rights of a parent who was not a member of the tribe.1-thumb-275x412-87952.jpg 

In this case, a daughter was removed from the home of Edward Parks and Bessie Stearman in 2008. According to reports, the daughter was six months old at the time, and a social worker was concerned about domestic violence issues in the home.

As a result of the social worker's report, the tribal court took emergency action and sent the baby girl to Stearman's first cousin, who became the child's foster parent.

Edward Parks was not a member of the Native Village of Minto and had never lived in the Minto Community. He was, however, a member of the Stevens Village, another tribe. Stearman was a member of the Minto tribe.

Instead of seeking relief from the tribal court, Parks filed a suit with the state court system where he found support. Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle sided with Parks, determining that the Minto Tribal Court had violated Parks' constitutionally protected due-process rights when they didn't afford the father the right to appear before it to testify.

The tribe appealed the court's decision and the Alaska Attorney General, siding with Parks, filed a brief in support of his case. That brief argued that the state court was the proper venue to judge the parental rights of a non-tribal member.

Alaska State Supreme Court Sides with Tribal Court

The Alaska State Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Parks had erred when he sought relief through the state court system. The court said that Parks should instead have brought his case before the Minto Tribal Court.

There's another twist to the story. While the civil case was pending, Parks was charged and convicted of felony assault and kidnapping. He is now serving a 59-year prison term, making the adoption case moot.

California's Tribal Customary Adoption

Tribal Customary Adoption is a permanency option for Native American children who are in California's foster-care system. It became effective four years ago and applies to new and existing cases, provided parental rights haven't been terminated.

This provision makes Native American foster children, who are unable to reunify with their biological parents, eligible for adoption "through the laws, traditions and customs of the child's tribe without requiring termination of the parental rights of the child's biological parents."

Once a hearing is scheduled to order a permanent plan for the child, the responsible agency must issue an assessment of the child's suitability for adoption and include TCA information in its report to the court.

The assessment of a child's suitability for adoption has to include:

  • The child's relationship with a certain tribe.
  • The child's tribal membership or affiliation.
  • Information about siblings.
  • The determination as to whether the child would benefit from contact with extended family members who aren't members of the child's tribe

Tribal Customary Adoption is available to dependents who are Native American children under the Indian Child Welfare Act. It's only applicable when the tribe of the child has elected TCA as a permanent plan.

For additional information about Tribal Customary Adoption, visit the Judicial Council of California'swebsite.

California's child custody laws are constantly shifting to accommodate the needs of families. It is vital to retain the support and counsel of a knowledgeable child custody lawyer that will review your options and help you determine the best course of action to protect your rights and the best interests of your children.Attorney James Sansone will take the time to understand your needs and the potential challenges that may lead to dispute, presenting your options and helping to determine the best approach to ensure a favorable outcome.

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