State’s New Child Adoption Rules Signal Thaw With Native Groups

Since 2008, the state has been in litigation with the Native Village of Tununak over the fate of a young girl in a case where parental rights were terminated. The state has held that because the girl’s grandmother did not file formal adoption paperwork in time, she lost the preference she would have been granted under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Now, Gov. Bill Walker has rolled out emergency regulations that seek to prevent situations like this in the future. As APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports, Native groups have long fought for the change.

With Julie Kitka, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives by his side, Walker announced at a press conference that the state would make it easier for Alaska Native children to remain with extended family or with tribal members in adoption cases.

“We are going as far as we can with the emergency regulations, up to the statutory limitations now.”

With the way the Indian Child Welfare Act works, those groups get preference in adoption cases. But as it stands now, they have to exercise that right through prescribed application notices and legal proceedings.

That’s not always easy in villages where there are often no attorneys. Health Commissioner Val Davidson tried to convey just how challenging the whole process is by asking reporters questions in Yup’ik.

“I asked you in Yup’ik, ‘If you’re a person who wants to step forward, come now. Now is the time. Now is the only time you can do that,'” Davidson said after two seconds of silence. “That’s what families face in Alaska every day.”

Under the new regulations, which are effective immediately, individuals who get custody preference would be able to express their intent to adopt a child in need of aid in less formal ways. They could do it in person, over the phone, by post, or even just by e-mail. The administration has also drafted a bill that would put those rules into statute. If the legislation passes next year, it would make the policy more likely to hold in future administrations.

Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka thanked the governor for the change, and said it signified a shift in relations between the state and tribes. She said the new rules would have a noticeable impact on families.

“It’s real. It impacts children in our state today,” said Kitka.

But it won’t affect one child — the now seven-year-old Baby Dawn in the Tununak case. At the same time the administration is changing its stance on adoption cases, it is staying firm in its position in that litigation — which was one of the reasons for the regulatory change in the first place. In that case, a non-Native foster family adopted Dawn before her grandmother asserted her position under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The state argued that the Office of Children’s Services behaved appropriately

On Wednesday, the same day that the regulations were signed, Attorney General Designee Craig Richards filed in a brief in the Tununak case that went against the village’s desires. While the brief acknowledged that the state was moving toward more flexible policies for child placement, it still held its position that a child’s grandmother lost her adoption preference when she did not give a formal notice that she wanted to take the girl in.

Walker does not think that’s inconsistent, saying that the regulations cannot be applied retroactively.

“We can’t change, we can’t rewrite what was in place at that time,” said Walker. “We can rewrite the future.”

Walker added that Richards was involved in the drafting of the new regulations, despite his position in the Tununak case.

The plaintiffs in the case remain committed to a rehearing.