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Indian Education Bill Passes House Committee

A bill that would incorporate concepts from the federal Indian Child Welfare Act proposed by Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, received support from the Montana ACLU and the Blackfeet Tribe in committee last week.

The House Human Services Committee voted 18-3 on Senate Bill 328, sending the legislation to be debated on the House floor.

Democrat representatives Ed Stafman of Bozeman, Kim Abbott of Helena, and Zooey Zephyr of Missoula were the three “No” votes.

Patrick Yawakie representing the Blackfeet Tribe said the bill was an excellent opportunity to use the concepts of ICWA and “incorporate these best practices for non-Indian children in the state.”

House Bill 317 is also making its way through the legislature, known as the “Montana Indian Child Welfare Act,” or MICWA, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder. The bill would codify all of the federal ICWA provisions in Montana state code.

Both bills come as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case that could decide the fate of the federal ICWA. The federal legislation passed in 1978 after Congress heard testimony that hundreds of thousands of Native children were taken from their homes by public and private agencies. ICWA has been described by proponents as the “gold standard” for child custody proceedings and practices.

According to a 2021 audit, Montana has the second highest number of children in foster care in the U.S. per 1,000 children. Non-Hispanic American Indian children made up 35 percent of the foster care population in Montana in 2020, according to the Kids Count Data Center. “Kinship care,” or care from extended family or people close to family, made up 48 percent of all placements from 2010 to 2019, the audit said.

Keegan Medrano with the ACLU of Montana told the Daily Montanan the MICWA and ICWA for All bills complement each other and can coexist, but they’re not interchangeable.

Stafman, who eventually voted against “ICWA for All,” asked how the bill would jive with MICWA if both were passed. Lenz said he didn’t think there would be a big conflict.

Zephyr told the Daily Montanan her vote on the bill could change on the House floor, but she wanted to check in with the American Indian Caucus before she could support it.

“We need to acknowledge the way that state and federal governments have utilized the CPS system in a way to harm and separate indigenous children from their parents,” Zephyr said.

During executive action on Lenz’s “ICWA for All” bill, an amendment was brought to add language if both bills passed, so that the MICWA legislation would be referenced in Lenz’s bill as well. The amendment passed unanimously.

MICWA was heard in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety on March 22. Medrano said the ACLU feels good about where conversations are at with MICWA right now, and that if the bill is tabled, there would be enough legislators to “blast” it to the floor.

Montana Child and Family Services administrator Nikki Grossberg said her division was in support of Lenz’s bill.

“The reasonable efforts required to prevent removal or return align with what we currently do as far as a full assessment connecting parents with resources and doing everything possible to work towards reunification,” Grossberg said.

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