Native Village of Tununak v. State of Alaska, Dept. of Health and Social Services

334 P.3d 165 (2014)

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Native Village of Tununak v. State of Alaska, Dept. of Health and Social Services

Alaska Supreme Court
334 P.3d 165 (2014)

Facts

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). established a hierarchy of placement preferences that applied when an Indian child was removed from her home. Under the hierarchy, placement was preferred with a member of the child’s family, then other tribe members, and then Indian families from other tribes. The hierarchy did not apply in cases in which there was good cause for deviation. Jenn F. (defendant) was an Indian woman who was affiliated with the Native Village of Tununak tribe (the tribe). Jenn had a child, Dawn, who was entitled to the protections of ICWA. In July 2008, when Dawn was an infant, the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) (plaintiff) took custody of her, and the court found that Dawn was a child in need of aid, known in other jurisdictions as a deprived child. The tribe intervened and submitted a list of possible foster placements, including Dawn’s grandmother, Elise. Elise’s home was not safe for Dawn, and Dawn was placed with a non-Native family, the Smiths. Jenn and the tribe agreed that there was good cause to deviate from the hierarchy. Elise did not resolve the problems with her home and did not file petitions for foster placement or adoption. The trial court terminated Jenn’s parental rights in September 2011, and then the tribe objected to Dawn’s placement with the Smiths, arguing that there was a change in circumstances as a result of the termination of Jenn’s parental rights. The Smiths filed a petition for adoption. The trial court held a placement hearing and found that there was good cause to deviate from the hierarchy. The court granted the Smiths’ adoption petition in March 2012. The tribe appealed. During the appellate stage of the matter, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 133 S. Ct. 2552 (2013), which concerned a voluntary adoption. The Supreme Court held that the ICWA hierarchy did not apply if none of the preferred parties filed a petition in the matter. The tribe argued that the Adoptive Couple decision did not apply to Dawn’s case because Dawn’s adoption was involuntary.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Stowers, J.)

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