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Justices asked to revisit Indian family law

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At least one Indiana Court of Appeals judge believes the state’s highest court should revisit how it applies a three-decade old statute to tribal Indian family adoption issues inside Indiana.

Ruling today on the case of In Re The Adoption of D.C. v. J.C. and A.C., No. 49A02-0909-CV-862, the panel unanimously affirmed a Marion County probate judge’s decision to allow a stepfather to adopt an 11-year-old boy who’d lived with him since birth.

The case presented a family law issue about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, 25 U.S.C. § 1901-1963 (1982), which is aimed at protecting the interests of tribal children and promoting stability and security to those tribes and families by minimizing their removal from those environments.

Stepfather J.C. had petitioned Marion Superior Court to adopt D.C., who’d been living with him since birth in 1998 after the mother S.C. had separated from his biological father. Mother and stepfather had custody of the child until the mother’s death in 2005. A few months before that, stepfather had obtained S.C.’s notarized consent to adopt D.C. Stepfather later remarried and his new wife joined the petition, arguing that biological father’s consent wasn’t needed under Indiana state law where they lived because the man hadn’t communicated or provided support significantly through the years.

But biological father contested D.C.’s adoption under ICWA, arguing the law should be applied because he was a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, an older son now living with him had enrolled in that tribe, and D.C. would be eligible for enrollment at some point. Another elder child was originally part of this case, but at age 15 that child went to live with biological father and was removed as part of the petition.

Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton Pratt found ICWA to be inapplicable because there was no “removal” from custody within an Indian family as contemplated by the law, and that the Indiana Supreme Court has found it applies when a tribal Indian child is being removed from an existing Indian environment.

The Court of Appeals found that it was in the child’s best interests to stay with stepfather in Indiana, since he’d cared for D.C. without interruption for the 11 years before this adoption matter. In addition, the court noted that biological father had not objected to custody and had extremely limited contact while accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid child support payments. The appellate judges also found biological father’s adoption consent wasn’t required.

Significantly, though, the appellate court declined to accept biological father’s invitation to go against 1988 Indiana Supreme Court precedent in analyzing and evaluating the ICWA application. More than 20 years ago in Matter of Adoption of T.R.M., 525 N.E. 2d 298, 303 (Ind. 1988), Indiana joined other states in how it applies that act to Indian children being removed from their existing environments.

While agreeing with the majority, Judge Michael Barnes wrote a concurring opinion that invited the state’s justices to do exactly that and join more recent national trends in applying the law. In the past decade courts, including those in Kansas and Oklahoma, have overruled the previous ruling that they and Indiana had originally based their applications on.

“In fact, the validity of the existing Indian family doctrine has repeatedly been called into question, and many courts have now abandoned the doctrine,” Judge Barnes wrote. “We do not have the authority to overrule our supreme court, and we must apply the existing Indian family doctrine in this case. However, given the controversy surrounding the existing Indian family doctrine, I encourage our supreme court to revisit its applicability in Indiana.”
 

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  2. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  3. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  4. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  5. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

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