Saturday, February 24, 2018

Judges Kathy Delgado (third from the left) and Donna Schmalberger of Denver are given Pendleton blankets at Putt’s restaurant in Crow Agency during their Monday visit to the Crow Reservation. Looking on are Crow Chief Judge Leroy Not Afraid (left) and Associate Judge Sheila Not Afraid.Gaynell Real Bird, child and family specialist, speaks to Colorado visitors on the importance of talking to social workers “on the ground” at her office in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.Chief Judge Leroy Not Afraid leans in to emphasize that the Indian Child Welfare Act “is the law” from his court chambers in Crow Agency.

Protecting what is sacred

Crow Tribe hosts cross-state meeting on American Indian child welfare
For Dennis Bighair, Crow tribal children are sacred. As such, the tribe’s former chief judge would like to keep them from being adopted off-reservation and away from their people.
“If you mistreat them, you’re going to have misfortune,” Bighair said. “That’s where we are today.”
Sheldon Spotted Elk, director of Indian child welfare for Casey Family Programs, has a goal Bighair can get behind – halving the number of children in foster care by 2020. The Casey Family Programs website states the organization, based in Seattle, is the largest U.S. “foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care,” with $2.2 billion in assets to draw upon.
To help move toward a reduction in foster care, Spotted Elk invited members of the Colorado court system to meet with Crow judges, Bureau of Indian Affairs specialists and other tribal officials. In addition to Spotted Elk, 10 visitors attended from the Denver area to listen, ask questions and learn.
“We’ll have a better understanding of where children are,” said Ginger Goes Ahead, court administrator for the Crow Judicial Branch. “They’ll have a better understanding of tribal sovereignty [and] our ability to keep children within our Crow families.”
This “ability” stems from the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, a federal law passed in response to a significant number of American Indian children being sent into foster care by public and private agencies. Priority for adoptive placement is now given to a member of the child’s extended family, other members of the child’s tribe and other American Indian families.
“ICWA is an integral policy framework on which tribal child welfare programs rely,” the National Indian Child Welfare Association website states. “However, as is the case with many laws, proper implementation of ICWA requires vigilance, resources and advocacy.”
American Indians make up an estimated 6.5 percent of the Montana population, according to state records. Spotted Elk said young tribal members represent about 40 percent of the state’s foster children – more than six times what would be proportional to their demographic numbers.
As for why more American Indian children are adopted proportionally, Spotted Elk said, “There are a lot of moving parts to that. I don’t have a direct, easy answer.” One factor to consider, he continued, was the possible effects of historical trauma to the Native population through white settlers’ attempted “genocide of the American Indian.”
Cross-cultural judgments, he said, could also prove problematic.
“The vast majority of these cases are neglect cases – not abuse cases, those are the minority of cases in the child welfare system,” Spotted Elk said. “When a culture is defining what the other culture [believes to be] neglect, there’s that cultural relativism. It’s hard to define and play by another culture’s rules.” 
Monday on the Crow Reservation was the first day of the Colorado court officials’ tour, followed by a trip to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux reservations in South Dakota.
Kathy Delgado, a district court judge in Adams County, Colo., said the trip is teaching her “just how important culture is [and] how important relationships are” in the area. Delgado wants to start a court in the fall based off of ICWA. 
“I wanted to meet some tribal judges who perhaps I will be dealing with in the future,” Delgado said. “I recognize that every tribe has its own culture and its own identity, so it was important for me to separate the various tribes on this trip.”
If she encounters an ICWA case regarding a Crow tribal member in the near future, Delgado will most likely be working with Chief Judge Leroy Not Afraid, who gave the opening address at the courthouse chambers.
“We’re getting the message out there that the law is the law,” he told Delgado and Judge Donna Schmalberger of Denver Juvenile Court. “We set the tone, your honors. We set the example for other agencies and other branches of government.”
For more information on ICWA, visit