After an emotional debate Friday, the House voted to limit the power of Indian tribes to control the adoption of part-Native children.
The action was decried as a breach of Indian rights as sovereign governments to protect their tribal integrity. But proponents said the bill was necessary to stop tribes from interfering with adoptions of children with little Native blood and virtually no ties to their ancestral cultures.
The Native American provisions provided the controversy in an otherwise popular bill, approved 393-15, that gives adopting families a $5,000-per-child tax credit. It also prohibits states from delaying adoptions in order to make racial matches.
The tax credit, part of the Republicans’ “Contract with America” and supported by President Clinton, is intended to reduce the roughly 450,000 children living in foster care in the United States, according to bill sponsors. The $5,000 credit would go to families making less than $75,000 a year. Families earning up to $115,000 would get lesser amounts.
Clinton also supports removing barriers to interracial adoptions. Proponents of the legislation said the practice has resulted in a large number of black children waiting for adoption.
But the president had opposed changing the law on Native children adoptions.
The House bill would gut a key provision of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act that gave tribal courts authority over adoption of children with enough Native blood to qualify for tribal membership. That’s regardless of whether the child’s natural parent or parents maintained any connection with their homelands.
The House would give state courts authority to determine whether the natural parents have “significant social, cultural or political affiliation with the tribe” to warrant tribal jurisdiction over the child’s adoption.
If the state court ruled the parents have maintained no such connection, adoption authority would stay with the state and the tribal courts would lose all jurisdiction over the child’s placement.
The 1978 act was intended to stop a steady increase in the number of Native children adopted by non-Native families and removed from the tribal homelands, often without their relatives’ consent.
“There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children,” the act declared.
While its defenders said the act has generally worked well, the controversy has been stirred by an estimated 40 or so instances in which tribes have belatedly upset adoptions that already had been approved in state court.
The most frequently cited example in the House debate was that of Jim and Colette Rost of Columbus, Ohio, who adopted twin two-year-old girls who are 3/32nds Pomo Indian.
The children’s part-Pomo father had concealed his Native ancestry to skirt tribal interference under the act. Four months after the adoption, however, the girls’ paternal grandmother, with the help of the Pomo tribe, filed for custody.
In January, a California appellate court reversed a lower-court order directing the Rosts to surrender the girls. That case is pending before the California Supreme Court, which is expected to announce this month whether it will hear the case.
Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, and other critics of the 1978 act said the adoption fight has cost the Rosts more than $300,000.
Pryce said the act has “caused endless litigation and pain” that Congress has a responsibility to end.
“Tribes can claim a child who has only 1/64th Indian blood and take it from the only security it has known,” she said. “We just can’t allow this to continue.”
Alaska Rep. Don Young, Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee that has responsibility over Native issues, staged a passionate effort to strip out the amendment. Young said that a handful of “horror stories” were driving the effort to rewrite a law that had worked successfully to protect tribal integrity in thousands of other Native adoptions.
“This is anti-Indian family,” Young said, adding that the 1978 act had stopped well-meaning adoption agencies with little understanding of Native traditions from “draining away the best and brightest” from Native tribes.
Although Young’s effort was turned back on a 212-195 vote, the legislation is expected to be vastly revised before it ever becomes law.
Leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said they will insist upon hearings, which the House did not hold, before they consider revising the Indian Child Welfare Act.
No action seems likely in the Senate before June when the Native Congress of American Indians will meet to discuss the act. Paul Moorehead, the NCAI’s head of governmental affairs, said efforts are under way among tribal leaders to recommend amendments to the act.