A legislative committee has approved both of the bill drafts the state’s Indian Child Welfare Act Task Force recommended for consideration this year.
The second bill would incorporate ICWA into Wyoming’s Safe Haven law.
Both proposals will now proceed to the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 Budget Session.
Wyoming Department of Family Services director Korin Schmidt said the juvenile delinquency bill would help avoid any confusion that might arise when Native American juveniles from Tribes in other states are arrested in Wyoming.
In those instances, Schmidt said, Wyoming’s current ICWA law requires her agency to contact those out-of-state Tribes to ask if they’d like to take jurisdiction over the case.
That’s where the confusion would come in, Schmidt said, because in response, those Tribes “are going to say, ‘Why would we take jurisdiction? That doesn’t apply under federal ICWA law.’”
“It’s really a clean-up (bill),” Schmidt told the Select Committee on Tribal Relations during a meeting this month in Fort Washakie. “It’s more about keeping federal ICWA intact and conforming state law to federal law.”
Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, agreed that the legislature “overstepped” by including juvenile delinquency in the state’s initial ICWA legislation.
“We went too broad and crossed lines, and it muddled things up,” she said. “It confuses it and (makes) it messy.”
That process is governed by contracts Wyoming DFS maintains with both of the Tribal DFS agencies and with Fremont and Hot Springs counties, she explained – and those contracts “state that the Tribes will be responsible for their juvenile services.”
“Via our contracts, we do talk about delinquency,” Schmidt said. “In those cases where it involves an Indian child, per the contract, (the) conversation first happens with the local Tribal DFS office. Often times they’ll take jurisdiction over that case, which is allowed, per the contract.”
Northern Arapaho Business Council Co-Chair Karen Returns to War said the Tribes would like that local process to become a statewide policy so it could be applied in other counties, too – like Natrona County, where “a lot of our families” are currently living, but where Tribal officials “don’t have the option (to) act on behalf of … our children.”
“We don’t know if they’re in the juvenile delinquent system,” NABC member Kimberly Whiteman Harjo said. “We don’t know if they’ve been taken out of a home and need to be placed in another home. …
“That’s our concern, is our children. If they do get in trouble, or they do need that help, they need to be placed in a safe environment. The whole reason for the ICWA is just that: to make sure we know where each child is, and to make sure that they’re safe.”
Another option is to require Tribal notification in juvenile delinquency cases throughout the state where Tribal members may lose their parental rights, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman John St. Clair said.
Oakley and other committee members expressed interest in exploring the issue further in the future.
“It’s not being consistently dealt with across the state,” Wyoming Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said. “That may be something we do in another bill.”