New Mexico lawmakers took a step this week toward further ensuring the rights of the state’s Native American children who get caught up in the child welfare system.
The State Indian Child Welfare Act measure, which passed the state House of Representatives on a vote of 53-15 on Monday, mostly mirrors federal legislation that passed in 1978, but it expands protections somewhat and ensures that even if the federal law is watered down in the future, the rights of New Mexico’s Indian children and families won’t wane.
House Bill 209 was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Georgene Louis of Albuquerque, an attorney and member of the Acoma Tribe. Louis said her bill, written in consultation with Native American groups and the state child welfare agency, would “recognize and honor the traditions and cultures of New Mexico’s 23 tribes, nations, and pueblos.”
The measure now goes to the state Senate for further consideration.
In New Mexico, as in other states, indigenous children have long been subject to wildly disproportionate odds of being separated from their birth parents and placed in foster care situations that don’t respect the cultural significance of maintaining tribal family ties, backers said.
All states must adhere to the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which became law in 1978, at a time when nearly a third of native children were removed from their families. It requires states and tribes to make active efforts to keep children with their families, and in cases where children are removed, that efforts are made to keep them with their tribe.
The fate of the federal law is currently in the hands of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to make a final ruling in Brackeen v. Bernhardt, a case in which the federal district court deemed ICWA to be unconstitutional. The case is expected to land in the Supreme Court no matter which way the circuit court goes.