People in Interest of K.C., 2020 COA 86 (May 28, 2020)

The Court of Appeals vacates a juvenile court order terminating parental rights due to the department’s failure to satisfy ICWA notice requirements.

During the juvenile court proceedings, the children’s father indicated he had Chicasaw heritage and the department sent notice to the Nation. In a letter to the department, the Nation indicated that the father and children were eligible for membership, requested that the children be enrolled, and requested the assistance of the child’s parent or legal guardian in enrolling the children. The department did not notify the juvenile court of the Nation’s request at that time or enroll the children. Later, the department brought the Nation’s letter to the attention of the juvenile court when it attached the letter and uncompleted citizenship applications to its motion to terminate the parent-child relationship. In its order terminating parental rights, the juvenile court found that father had not enrolled, neither mother nor father had enrolled the children, and the children were not Indian children subject to ICWA.

The Court of Appeals holds that when the notified tribe communicates to the department the desire to obtain tribal citizenship or membership for enrollment-eligible children, the department must, at the earliest time possible, submit the tribe’s response to the juvenile court. The juvenile court must then hold an enrollment hearing to determine whether it is in the best interest of the children to be enrolled in the tribe. The juvenile court has the ultimate responsibility to decide whether it is in the best interests of enrollment-eligible children to become members of the requesting tribe. At the hearing, the juvenile court must consider the positions of the parents, department, and GAL. The Court of Appeals notes that ICWA and the 2016 ICWA Guidelines specifically encourage enrollment and enrollment may result in eligibility for more services and programs. Given these benefits and the additional protections ICWA provides, “the juvenile court should not treat an objection, even from a parent, as a veto.”

The Court of Appeals concludes that once the department has timely notified the juvenile court of the tribe’s request, the department has satisfied its notice responsibilities under ICWA. Due to the department’s failure to submit the tribe’s request to the juvenile court, the Court of Appeals vacates the judgement and remands for the juvenile court to conduct an enrollment hearing.

Note: Enrollment hearings are a new procedure announced in this decision. At the time of the publication of this newsletter, the period for petitioning for certiorari has not expired.

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