The first bill to come out of the legislative special session may be one that streamlines the handling of children in state custody.
All the testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee supported passage of House Bill 200.
The bill sprang from a lawsuit involving a grandmother in the southwest Alaska village of Tununak who testified in court that she wanted to adopt her granddaughter with the understanding her testimony would give her standing under the Indian Child Welfare Act. ICWA gives preference to the relatives, family, or tribe of Native children in custody and adoption cases.
However, after a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled a petition to adopt filed by a non-Native family outweighed the grandmother’s verbal statement. Office of Children’s Services director Christy Lawton said HB 200 would provide an easier first step.
“This bill really provided that consideration that we have something less formal than a written petition for adoption that really is not necessary at the beginning of the case, but that all people would eventually have to file if they became the adoptive identified parent,” Lawton said.
Tribes say filing a petition to adopt in state court is hard to accomplish in remote villages, and requires the services of an attorney. Lawton said filing a proxy would be easier.
“All they have to do is let us know, they can do that via email, via fax, they can stand up in court, at a meeting,” said Lawton. “And that will then begin a process by which we will formally notify the parties and assess them. And the court will recognize them as relatives and that will be preserved on the record.”
In their testimony, people described delays in children’s cases moving from one court to another, and often requiring subsequent judges to become educated about a child’s situation. Carla Erickson is the Child Protection Services supervisor in the Alaska Department of Law. She said HB 200 would put several legal procedures before the same judge.
“We’ve been calling this kind of the one judge one family notion, rolling in the adoption, and guardianship proceedings, and civil custody proceedings as well,” Erickson said.
Tribal Administrator Lawrence Armor of Klawock was one of several people who said it’s important to keep Native children close to their roots.
“By making it easier for a family member to let the court know that they are willing to raise their relative, and by leaving it with one judge that has been following the case, I think it will help people save money and help keep children close family, community and culture,” Armor said. “It’s just really difficult to see people in our small communities, people that we love, struggling to keep their families whole.”
Sen. Peter Micciche of Soldotna said it took his family a year and a half to adopt a child abandoned at birth, so he doesn’t want to be overly lenient to absent or deadbeat parents, but he asked OCS director Lawton if a streamlined process would still protect the rights of parents. She said the bill would have no effect on parental rights.
“We’re still required by law to give them every opportunity to work their case plan to be successfully reunited,” Lawton said. “So this doesn’t expedite us moving toward a goal other than reunification any differently than we are now.”
HB200 puts emergency regulations issued last year by Gov. Bill Walker into law and clarifies that proxies can be used in cases of adoptions by non-Natives as well as Natives. Judiciary Committee Chair Lesil McGuire said she expects HB 200 to quickly move to the Senate floor for consideration.