Under a new grant, ANJC will offer guidance and legal representation in Anchorage courts for all Tribes statewide
Alaska Native and American Indian (Native) children make up only 19 percent of the kids in the state of Alaska, yet more than 50 percent of the children in out-of-home care are Native. In Anchorage, the number is higher: While the percentage of Native kids is only 9 percent, they make up over 60 percent of those in out-of-home care.
These are children who have been removed from their parents’ care due to allegations of abuse or neglect. They may be placed with relatives or with foster families.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law passed to counteract frequent misuse of state proceedings which resulted in widespread removal of Native children from their families. The ICWA protects and preserves the bond between Native children and their Tribe and recognizes Tribes’ right to intervene and participate in certain State cases. However, unlike other parties, Tribes are not appointed attorneys.
And oftentimes, ICWA caseworkers intervening on behalf of children are working from remote villages and can only appear in Anchorage court proceedings by telephone.
“A voice on the phone is not nearly as effective as in-person representation,” said Chad Holt, an attorney who recently joined the team at Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC).
Along with a second attorney and two paralegals, Chad will work under a new grant that offers legal representation for Alaska Native Tribes in ICWA cases. It’s a significant step toward helping the state of Alaska follow the ICWA mandate.
A Voice without Representation
Think about the last conference call you were on: the confusion of people talking over one another, the difficulty of collaborating with people you can’t see. Now throw in an entire dictionary’s worth of legal terms. That’s what calling into Anchorage for a court proceeding can be like for tribal ICWA coordinators.
Each Tribe strives to provide good ICWA services, but funding, recruitment and retention can be challenging. “Some Tribes have a dedicated ICWA coordinator; others have a half-time person,” explained Joshua Ahsoak, the second ICWA attorney joining ANJC.
ICWA’s mandate requires states to make active efforts to prevent removal of children from their parents’ or Alaska Native custodian and to reunify an Alaska Native child with their parent/custodian after removal.
ICWA/Child of Need Aid (CINA) dependency cases and state custody cases are very unique. “If you’re not used to the process,” Chad went on, “it’s very hard to call in and understand what’s going on and be able to achieve the Tribe’s goals.”
That’s where CITC and ANJC come in. Thanks to a new grant awarded to CITC by the Bureau of Indian Affairs – Office of Tribal Justice, ANJC now offers legal representation for Tribes involved in CINA hearings in Anchorage Superior Court.
“The Tribes will be our clients, and our primary duty is to them,” Josh clarified. Another goal is to increase capacity for Tribes and tribal organizations to appropriately intervene in ICWA cases.
“There’s a huge need in the Native community for Tribes to have a voice in the Anchorage area. We will represent Tribes based on what they want and what they need.”
Chad, Josh, and their team are reaching out to Tribes, villages, and tribal organizations to build relationships and offer assistance to Tribes in engaging in Anchorage CINA cases. Right now the ICWA team is making calls and presenting at tribal forums.
These initial efforts have already resulted in Tribes calling and seeking representation. Outreach will continue while the team begins representing Tribes in Anchorage CINA cases. Chad and Josh aim to offer representation in 40 cases in the first year of the grant.
“There’s a huge need in the Native community for Tribes to have a voice in the Anchorage area,” said Tammy Ashley, ANJC Director of Program Operations. “This grant will enable that to happen. We will represent Tribes based on what they want and what they need.”
Tribes interested in finding legal representation with ANJC can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (907) 793-3550. Individuals who are looking for help navigating the Anchorage Court System can find resources at anjc.org or by calling (907) 793-3550.