The National Center for State Courts is currently developing a notification system, called ICWA eNotice, that will allow states and tribes to communicate about Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases electronically rather than by postal mail. The Cherokee Nation is piloting this system in collaboration with the County of Los Angeles, California. eNotice is anticipated to improve case outcomes for Indian children and families by enabling state courts to confirm a child’s tribal membership and deliver key services more quickly. Though the Cherokee Nation is the first tribe to implement the electronic notification system, the long-term goal is to implement ICWA eNotice nationwide.
Program Running Length:
2014 – Present
Headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has a tribal jurisdictional area spanning 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. These are: Adair, Cherokee, Craig, Delaware, Mayes, McIntosh, Muskogee, Nowata, Ottawa, Rogers, Sequoyah, Tulsa, Wagoner, and Washington.
The Cherokee Nation’s jurisdictional area is located in Northeastern Oklahoma, also known as Green Country, which is characterized by the heavily wooded Ozark Mountains, rolling foothills, and many lakes. The largest city in the region is Tulsa.
As of 2014, there were 313,523 enrolled citizens of the Cherokee Nation, with 189,228 living within the state of Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is the largest of three federally recognized tribes of Cherokee people.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law designed to preserve Indian families and protect the rights of Indian children and tribes. Among other provisions, ICWA requires states to notify an Indian child’s tribe when the child is involved in a child welfare proceeding in state court. The state court then is required to transfer the case to the tribe’s jurisdiction if the tribe requests. Alternatively, the tribe may intervene in the state court case to advocate for the child and tribe’s best interests. Although this law offers important protections for Indian children, compliance with the law has been hampered by challenges in identifying Indian children in state court cases and providing timely notice to the appropriate tribe.
Under current practices, states typically notify tribes of each potential ICWA case through registered postal mail. The notice provides the child’s name and date of birth, along with the parents’ names, dates of birth, and Social Security Numbers and/or tribal enrollment numbers. Often, however, the information provided to the tribe is incomplete and the tribe must request additional information by mail. Only when all necessary information is gathered can the tribe confirm the child’s tribal status and assert jurisdiction over the case. This back-and-forth process can take weeks or months. As a result, Indian children often remain in state foster care for extended periods, frequently with non-Indian families, and are deprived of specialized, culturally-appropriate services. Moreover, the tribe is denied the ability to advocate for the child in a timely manner.
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is in the process of developing a national electronic notification system for ICWA cases. In 2012, NCSC approached the Cherokee Nation and Los Angeles County about the possibility of testing this system prior to national implementation. Los Angeles County has a large number of ICWA cases, and these cases involve more Cherokee children than children from any other tribe. In addition, the Cherokee Nation already has an ICWA worker assigned to California.
Following preliminary discussions, the Cherokee Nation entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Center for State Courts, Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services, and the District Attorney for Oklahoma’s 13th Judicial District. The Memorandum outlined the goals of the collaboration—to establish policies, procedures, and technology for electronic notification between state, local, and tribal authorities. Later, a second Memorandum of Understanding between the Cherokee Nation and the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services outlined operational protocols for the pilot project. Electronic notification is provided by an automatically generated email from Los Angeles County to the Cherokee Nation with information on any ICWA case involved a Cherokee child.
Today, this nationwide project is still in the formative stages. However, the pilot project involving the state of California and the Cherokee Nation is underway, and the tribe is successfully receiving electronic ICWA notifications from Los Angeles County.
The goal of the National Center for State Court’s ICWA eNotice project is to develop a nationwide system that all tribes and states can use for meeting ICWA’s notification requirements. The pilot project involving the Cherokee Nation aims to test out this system on a smaller and more manageable scale prior to national implementation.
ICWA eNotice sends an automated email to the Eligibilty Unit within the Cherokee Nation’s Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services (DCYF) to notify the tribe of any case in Los Angeles County that potentially involves a Cherokee child.The Cherokee Nation’s computer technician and a DCYF supervisor are also copied on the notification emails. Upon receipt, the tribe can confirm the child’s membership status or request more information via email, further expediting the process. Additionally, eNotice has a mechanism for notifying county officials if there is a pending inquiry from a tribe that has not been answered.
Electronic notification allows the Cherokee Nation officials to quickly establish whether the child is a tribal member and gives the tribe’s ICWA case worker rapid access to important case documents. The faster notification can also prevent unnecessary removal of children from their parents, reduce unnecessary changes in foster placements, and enable the tribe to provide the child and family with specialized services.
Program staff conduct an individualized intake assessment for victims who seek services. The assessment includes questions about the victim’s cultural needs, and program staff can use this information to connect clients to cultural modes of healing. For example, two staff members take groups of women to a sweat lodge every other month. One staff member accompanies the women into the sweat while the other waits outside with any women who decide not to enter. In addition, the program’s advisory committee includes both a medicine woman and a medicine man, who help incorporate culture and tradition into the healing process. The medicine woman also works at the local health clinic, where she screens women for domestic violence and sexual assault. The program facilitates client participation in other traditional practices as well, including smudging and traditional dance. At the annual pow-wow, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault perform a special dance to the Women’s Honor Song, which they learn from tribal elders at the Cultural Center.
Additionally, program staff conduct community outreach and educational activities. The program has hosted two community summits to explain the available services and answer questions from community members. Program staff hope to host future summits in order to continue community outreach and the improvement of its services. As a long-term goal, staff would like to set up a hotline for victims. They currently have at least one advocate on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using a cell phone.
The ICWA eNotice pilot program is a partnership involving several tribal and county agencies. The Cherokee Nation’s Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services and Attorney General’s Office are the primary tribal partners. The Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office is the lead partner from the State of California.
The program accepts all referrals and walk-ins, regardless of tribal membership status, and attempts to provide services for any person in need.
Most referrals come from the local police department, which refers all Native victims to the Circle of Hope Program. Referrals also come from family members and friends of victims. Some victims choose to self-refer. There are posters in the community advertising the program’s services, which are intended to encourage victims to come forward. Additionally, program staff conduct direct outreach to youth. Once a referral has been made, services are offered immediately.“I think if they can get to the point where they start to understand the cultural components of their community, their tribe, and themselves, I would call that a success.” – Adam Becenti, Program Coordinator
The ICWA eNotice pilot project has not created any additional costs for the Cherokee Nation. The project has simply enabled existing tribal staff to communicate more rapidly with Los Angeles County officials. Therefore, the tribe has not sought any outside funding for this project.
The grant currently pays for the salaries of the program’s two full-time advocates as well as the administrative assistant. Additionally, the grant covers the first 15 hours/week for the program’s therapist, while a separate grant funds the remaining 14 hours.
The program submits biannual reports to the Office on Violence Against Women that include number of clients served, the number of times each client is served, client demographics (including the type of relationship between victim and offender), and the number and type of services provided.
The National Center for State Courts has contracted with Waterhole Justice Consulting, a private firm located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to provide technical assistance for the national ICWA eNotice project. The Cherokee Nation has not required any technical assistance for the pilot project.
The Cherokee Nation’s partners for the ICWA eNotice pilot project are Los Angeles County, the State of California, and the National Center for State Courts.
- Having a staff well versed in the rules of confidentiality to avoid inadvertently harming or endangering clients. Staff also have the flexibility to meet with clients in a neutral location to protect their identity.
- Having clearly-defined roles for all staff and partner agencies.
- Willingness to consider new ideas for expanding and strengthening the program.
The ICWA eNotice pilot project required approval from both the Cherokee Nation’s tribal council and the California state legislature, as well as agreements between state, local, and tribal agencies. Securing these approvals and agreements was a lengthy process that caused frustration among program staff.
In addition, the Indian Child Welfare Act still requires California to provide notice to the Cherokee Nation by registered postal mail in addition to the e-notification. This duplication of effort consumes limited state and tribal resources.
The Cherokee Nation recommends that tribes that are considering implementing an e-notification system begin as soon as possible because the transition requires a lengthy exploratory/planning phase. The Cherokee Nation, in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts, engaged in a two-year planning period, in addition to an exploratory period before that.
The Cherokee Nation also recommends that tribes evaluate the costs and benefits of changing their ICWA policies and procedures to facilitate e-notification. The Cherokee Nation receives approximately 10,000 notifications each year, and only 10% involve children who are determined to be members or eligible for membership. For smaller tribes that receive a more manageable number of ICWA notifications, the expenditure of resources may not make sense.
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