The engagement of tribal courts and judges promotes an understanding that best practices in tribal courts may be different from state courts. Partnering with tribal courts and judges, working in parallel with each other, is essential to meeting the needs of children and families served by state and tribal courts. Children and families are best served within the context of their community, and thus the relationship that tribal courts have within their tribes is honored. The voice of tribal court judges is a necessary component to a commitment to diversity and equal justice. It is these diverse perspectives that strengthen solutions.
Through a resolution adopted by the NCJFCJ Board of Directors in January 2011, “the NCJFCJ acknowledges the critical work of tribal judges and tribal leadership organizations to develop and implement effective practices. The NCJFCJ is committed to partnering with tribal courts and judges as allies consistent with the commitment of all courts to meet the needs of all children and families served by the state courts and tribal courts without discrimination or favor. The NCJFCJ understands compliance with the letter and the spirit of all laws affecting Native children and families including, but not limited to, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) in a context that supports tribal culture, the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), and the full faith and credit provisions of the Constitution and of federal laws of the U.S.”
Since 2010, the NCJFCJ has held regular Tribal Judicial Leadership Group meetings with tribal and state court judges and partners from across the country to continue dialogue and efforts on incorporating tribal recommendations into policies around juvenile and family court practices to strengthen tribal and state collaborations. In 2018, the NCJFCJ established the Tribal Justice Partnerships program. In collaboration with the National American Indian Court Judges Association (NAICJA) and other national tribal and court organizations, this program works primarily with tribal courts and focuses on establishing culturally-informed best practices affecting juvenile and family welfare matters. The program also provides training, technical assistance, and resources to tribes on how to address the complex issues of cases where child welfare and domestic violence intersect.
Through the Tribal Justice Partnerships program, the NCJFCJ provides culturally informed expertise and technical assistance to tribes on issues common across system-involved children and families (e.g., trauma, substance abuse, entitlement, and discretionary programs, special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction, etc.), and also lends this expertise to collaborative planning and decision-making across other NCJFCJ projects.
The NCJFCJ supports the implementation of best practices in child welfare cases in tribal model court sites that include the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and the Suquamish Tribe in Washington. The NCJFCJ provides technical assistance to seven Tribal Court Improvement Programs to create or enhance their children’s codes, augment their capacity to take more ICWA cases, and advance collaborative opportunities with these state partners: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (MT), Muckleshoot Indian Tribe (WA), Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (NY), Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (MI), Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (WI), and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (ND).
ICWA is a federal mandate on state courts and agencies. To assist state judges and child welfare workers in complying with both the statute and new regulations, the NCJFCJ published the Indian Child Welfare Act Judicial Benchbook, designed to improve state court practice in the handling of ICWA cases. This benchbook complements NCJFCJ’s best practice guide, the Enhanced Resource Guidelines, which promotes ICWA compliance at every stage of the case.
The NCJFCJ assisted in the development of judicial ICWA online training modules through its work with the Capacity Building Center for Courts. The training will be distributed by Court Improvement Programs to the judiciary in every state. ICWA training is provided during the NCJFCJ’s Child Abuse and Neglect Institute (CANI), National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking, and New Judges Institute, and technical assistance on ICWA has been provided to both state and tribal court judges nationwide.
Over the past four years, the NCJFCJ has increased its tribal initiatives from four to more than 20 projects either directly working with tribal court systems or with state courts to increase ICWA compliance. The NCJFCJ has distributed more than 3,000 copies of the Indian Child Welfare Act Judicial Benchbook since its release in November 2017.
The NCJFCJ provided webinar training for judicial officers from Ohio and Nevada on the new ICWA regulations. Results from the evaluation of the NCJFCJ’s CANI found that judges had an increased motivation to comply with ICWA following the training. The Disproportionality Rates for Children of Color in Foster Care publication has helped facilitate conversations about the need for policy and practice changes in all courts to improve outcomes for Native children involved in the court system.
The NCJFCJ will continue to work collaboratively with tribal courts, tribal governing bodies, and other tribal authorities to ensure equal treatment of, and resources for, all Native families and children at all levels of government. Tribal court judges will be provided with training and technical assistance opportunities on developing and implementing best practices in child and family law cases. State and tribal court judges will work collaboratively when Native families and children are involved in state court proceedings including, but not limited to, ICWA cases. The NCJFCJ recommends continuing and increasing funding levels on a national scale to assist tribal courts in implementing promising programs and developing necessary court services.