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Conference ends with eye on court ruling; Orlando to host NICWA in 2022

The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) hosted its annual (and second-ever virtual) conference April 11 to April 14 – the largest national gathering that’s focused on American Indian and Alaska Native child advocacy issues. The Seminole Tribe was once again the lead sponsor.

Organizers said there were 50 workshops and 1,209 attendees who represented 47 states and provinces and 272 tribes. Last year’s virtual event had 1,557 attendees.

“In the midst of addressing challenging issues, the conference was not just informative, but also a very inspiring and uplifting experience,” said one attendee on an evaluation shared by organizers.

Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), NICWA’s executive director, said one of the most poignant moments for her was the National
Day of Prayer for Native Children on the second day.

“Sometimes we smudge and smoke the pipe – it’s wonderful to do early in the morning,” she said. “We weren’t sure how it would work out on Zoom, but over 150 were there. Board members and staff took turns sharing a prayer or a teaching, some sang a song. It was a special event and we felt connected to one another.”

Kastelic said another highlight was a unique panel of women who shared personal experiences with the child welfare system. The panel featured a Navajo grandmother who was raising three children; a young woman who was a former foster care youth and now has guardianship of her siblings; and a woman who works with families and children who have experienced Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASD.

“We’ve done some panels with people with lived experiences, but it’s usually been with youth,” Kastelic said. “This time it was adults with different experiences told through personal stories – and those listening were child welfare workers that can do something about it. If we’re going to redesign it, we need to ask those who have been in the system.”

NICWA’s 40th conference in 2022 is set to take place through a hybrid in-person and virtual format in Orlando from April 3 to April 6.

ICWA concerns

The status of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is always a hot topic at the conference and it was again this year. The 1978 law was put in place to prevent the separation of Native children from their parents and extended families by state child welfare and private adoption agencies.

ICWA has seen challenges in court in recent years.

After very little movement for many months on one of the latest challenges – what’s known as the Brackeen v. Bernhardt case – the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a more than 300-page ruling just days before the conference began.

Attorneys on both sides have been working on their interpretations of the ruling, however ICWA stakeholders did not see it as a clear success. NICWA leadership said it wouldn’t issue any official statements until it receives an opinion from its legal counsel, which had not yet been issued at press time.

“Each side got something they wanted and something they didn’t want,” Kastelic said. “Something positive about the decision is that ICWA is still the law of the land, is still constitutional and is founded on Congress’ ability to pass tribal laws.”

Gil Vigil, NICWA’s board president, concurred with Kastelic.

“The underlying constitutionality of ICWA and the power for Congress to enact legislation like ICWA remains intact,” Vigil (Tesuque Pueblo) said. “Further, the vast majority of ICWA requirements are unaffected by this decision. Outside the states of the Fifth Circuit, we anticipate this decision having little to no effect on ICWA’s application.”

Gil Vigil, NICWA board president (Photo courtesy NICWA)

The states that make up the Fifth Circuit are Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

The reason why the ruling is of great importance to Indian Country, Kastelic said, is because there has been a pattern for at least a decade of groups that have worked to chip away at tribal sovereignty issues like adoption and others.

“We’ve seen groups like the Goldwater Institute and those with political agendas, including adoption groups and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and conservative think tanks that have undermined tribal rights and resources and anti-sovereignty groups that are opposed for different reasons,” she said.

Kastelic said there is now a waiting period before oral arguments by both sides will be scheduled. The parties involved have until Sept. 3 to petition the Supreme Court to review the case. Meanwhile, Kastelic is encouraging tribal leaders to work toward strengthening ICWA laws and ICWA courts in their respective states.

“At the state level you could have more protections,” she said. “Federal protections are the floor, not the ceiling. At the state level you could pass even more supportive legislation.”

Kastelic said about nine states currently have standalone ICWA laws and a couple dozen have provisions embedded into existing state child welfare laws.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at