Lawmakers prep bill to protect Indigenous children in Utah’s child welfare system

There is currently only one Indian Child Welfare Act-funded employee responsible for Utah’s eight Indigenous nations.

(Kevin McGill | AP) Rosa Soto Alvarez, of Tucson, holds a flag of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe as she and other Native Americans stand outside the federal appeals court in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives Native American families preference in adoption proceedings involving Native American children. Alvarez is a supporter of the law.

Utah State legislators are drafting a bill to help protect Utah’s Indigenous children in the child welfare system. The proposed law would provide more resources in Utah for the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a 1978 federal law that governs the removal and out-of-home placement of Native children.

Right now, there is only one ICWA-funded employee responsible for Utah’s eight Indigenous nations, which manages hundreds of Native welfare cases in the state, said Paul Tsosie, a lawyer working on ICWA legislation.

Rupert Steele, chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, and Sen. Jani Iwamoto asked Utah’s eight tribal leaders to back their bill at a meeting of the Utah Tribal Leaders on Thursday in Cedar City. The Utah Tribal Leaders meet six times a year to discuss issues of shared concern for all eight sovereign nations.

“We are going to introduce legislation that will strengthen the underlying authorities of that [ICWA specialist] position,” Tsosie said. “In addition, [the bill] would infuse resources into that office such as more job positions, more financial resources because that one position has a lot to do for Indian Country, for the Indian children.”

Tsosie added that the proposed bill would better equip Utah’s only federal ICWA specialist. Similar tribal engagement efforts to address the health disparities in Utah’s Indigenous populations led to the creation of the Indian Health Liaison position at the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

Steele explained that Indigenous children and families have been suffering since American contact. He said the federal policies of boarding schools, foster care programs and the adoption of Native children by non-Native families have harmed Native communities.

“One out of every three Indian (Native) children had been forcibly removed from their own homes,” Steele said. “The Indian Child Welfare Act provided federal protections to Indian children from being taken away from their cultures and homes. ICWA is known as the gold standard in child welfare.”

Steele, who is also a member of the Utah Tribal Leaders, added that Indigenous children in Utah remain underserved. “Indian children are overrepresented in the foster care system at a rate 2.1 times greater and are placed in foster care four times higher,” he said.

In a separate report to the tribal leaders, Stephanie Benally, Native American specialist for Utah Foster Care, a nonprofit that finds foster families, said that there is a shortage of Native American foster parents, who she says generally provide a better fit to care for Native children.

“We do need homes,” she said to the tribal leaders, noting that foster parents need to be members of a federally recognized tribe, pass a background check and be a citizen of Utah.

According to Benally, the ideal placement for a Native child is with a biological family member, a family from the child’s tribe or a family from a different tribe. If none of those options are available, children are placed with a non-Native foster family, she said.

Iwamoto said the proposed bill will be available for public review in the next several weeks and urged tribal leaders to remain involved in the bill making process.

Correction • Oct. 10, 5:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to make it clear that Rupert Steele never mentioned The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to correct the context of a statement from Sen. Jani Iwamoto.