A bill in Utah to create a state version of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act has been held in the House Judiciary Committee. While this prevents the bill from going to a floor vote, it may be revisited later in the session.
Republican state Rep. Nelson Abbott of Orem said the bill’s definitions of extended family and standards around deferring to tribal law and customs could confuse judges unfamiliar with ICWA and the cultures and policies of Utah’s tribes, Deseret News reports. Abbott suggested lawmakers could work with tribes to clarify the bill to make it easier for judges to understand.
Another lawmaker who voted to hold the bill said she’d rather wait to see what the U.S. Supreme Court decides on the federal statute, which is currently under threat by the Brackeen v. Haaland case that questions its constitutionality.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Christine Watkins countered Abbott’s concern, noting that the bill had been thoroughly reviewed by tribes, their legal counsel and the state attorney general’s office.
Several other states are considering codifying ICWA’s protections into state law this legislative session, including Wyoming, Nevada and North Dakota. At least eleven states already have such laws on the books, offering tribal families protections against unnecessary family separations and ensuring special efforts to keep Native children who are removed from home within their extended family or tribal communities.
The flurry of legislative action around this issue represents states’ efforts to shore up protections for their Indigenous residents should ICWA be overturned by the Supreme Court. A decision is expected this spring in Brackeen v. Haaland, which aims to nullify the 44-year old federal law by arguing that it discriminates against white people who want to adopt or foster Native children. ICWA was passed in 1978 in an attempt to rectify years of cultural genocide through child welfare policies that tore as many as one-third of Native children away from their tribes, placing them in assimilation-focused boarding schools and with white adoptive families.
All eight tribes in Utah support the bill, as do Attorney General Sean Reyes, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, and the state’s Native American Legislative Liaison Committee.
Judiciary committee Chairman Rep. Jon Hawkins of Pleasant Grove said the bill will be added to a future agenda for further discussion.