New York Attorney General Letitia James joined a bipartisan coalition of 24 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in Haaland v. Brackeen urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a challenge to longstanding protections guaranteed to Native American children, their families, and communities under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICWA is a critical framework for managing state-tribal relations, protecting the rights of Native American children, and preventing the displacement of Native American children from their families and communities. In the amicus brief, the coalition highlights the United States’ long history of inequitable removals of Native American children and reiterates the states’ fundamental interest in standing up for the well-being of children in state child-custody proceedings. The coalition of attorneys general previously submitted an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
“Children are the future. Removing native children from their families and communities denies them the opportunity to be immersed in their heritage and denies these nations an integral part of their future,” said Attorney General James. “The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to help ensure that Native American children would have access to their communities and awareness about their history and cultural identity. I am proud to stand with a bipartisan group of my fellow attorneys general to defend this settled law and speak out against efforts to weaken or destroy it. We owe it to future generations to keep up this important fight.”
“The Onondaga Nation appreciates Attorney General Letitia James’ joining the amicus brief in defense of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is a critically important federal law that protects Indigenous families and children,” said Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joe Heath. “Prior to the passage of ICWA, Indigenous children were removed from their homes 20 times more often than White children. It is also important to remember that this destructive epidemic of unnecessary removals followed the boarding school system which also removed Indigenous children from their homes and resulted in 1000s of deaths and horrific abuse. These governmental policies of assimilation and genocide were designed to tear apart families and communities and to terminate Indigenous cultures and Nations. The Onondaga Nation vigorously opposes all attempts to weaken ICWA and its protections for Indigenous children and families, and welcomes the support of those defending ICWA.”
In 1978, Congress enacted ICWA to combat states and private parties that were initiating child-custody proceedings which removed Native American children from their parents and placed them in non-tribal adoptive and foster homes. That practice only harmed children, their families, and their communities, and it also posed an existential threat to the continuity and vitality of Indian nations. To address this, Congress established minimum federal standards governing the removal of Native American children who are members of federally recognized tribes, or eligible for such membership, from their families.
ICWA’s provisions safeguard the rights of Native American children, parents, and nations in state child-custody proceedings, and seek to promote the placement of Native American children with members of their extended families or with other tribal homes. The law’s approach is tailored to the unique status of Native Americans as a separate people with their own political institutions. In the more than four decades since Congress enacted ICWA, the statute has become the foundation of state-tribal relations in the realm of child custody and family services.
In the amicus brief, Attorney General James and her fellow attorneys general note that ICWA is a critical tool for protecting Native American children and fostering state-tribal collaboration. The coalition also highlights that ICWA is a valid exercise of Congress’s powers over tribal affairs in response to unwarranted removals that imperiled relations with Native American tribes and threatened their existence and that the law’s provisions do not violate the “anti-commandeering” doctrine, which prohibits Congress from issuing direct commands to state governments. The brief also states that ICWA’s preferences for the adoptive and foster-care placement of the Native American children to whom it applies do not violate equal protection.
Joining Attorney General James in filing the brief are the attorneys general of Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.