B.H. v. People ex rel. X.H.

Decision Date26 June 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05SC686.,05SC686.
Citation138 P.3d 299
PartiesB.H., Petitioner v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, In the Interest of X.H., a child, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Davide C. Migliaccio, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Attorney for Petitioner.

William Louis, El Paso County Attorney, Laura C. Rhyne, Deputy County Attorney, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent.

Jill E. Tompkins, Boulder, Colorado, Attorney for Amicus Curiae American Indian Law Clinic, Colorado Indian Bar Association, and American Indian Law Center.

John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Mark N. McMullen, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Attorney General of the State of Colorado.

Justice COATS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

B.H., the natural mother of X.H., sought review of the court of appeals unpublished opinion affirming the district court's order terminating the parent-child relationship. The district court proceeded to trial and granted the state's motion to terminate parental rights, despite notice never having been given to any Indian tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs that X.H. might be an Indian child within the meaning of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the applicability of the Act had not been established.

Because the El Paso County Department of Human Services and the district court had reason to believe that a federally recognized Indian tribe could consider X.H. to be a tribal member or the eligible biological child of a member, potentially affected tribes were entitled to notice of the proceedings prior to any determination by the court. The judgment of the court of appeals is therefore reversed and the case is remanded with instructions to order that notice be given in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Colorado Children's Code. If it is ultimately determined, after proper notice, that X.H. is not an Indian child, the district court's order terminating parental rights shall stand affirmed. If X.H. is determined to be an Indian child, the district court must proceed in accordance with the Act.

I.

In June 2004, the El Paso County Department of Human Services filed a petition in the juvenile division of the district court, alleging that X.H. was a dependent and neglected child. As a result of her mother's methamphetamine use and related criminal activity, X.H. had been placed in foster care earlier that month. In July, following the department's "diligent search" for family members, including the child's mother and father, it filed a report with the court, characterizing the child's mother, B.H., as "Native American/White" and the child's maternal grandmother as "Native American." The grandmother had reported that her great-great grandmother had walked the Trail of Tears; that she was trying to register with the Cherokee tribe at that very time; and that she had officially adopted her Indian name. Neither the department nor the court made further inquiry into X.H.'s Indian heritage or attempted to verify her status as an Indian child.

On January 24, 2005, the department filed a motion to terminate the parent-child legal relationship. When the parties appeared for the termination hearing on April 20, 2005, however, the department immediately requested a continuance, recommending more time for the mother to comply with her treatment plan and placement of the child with her grandmother. Only the guardian ad litem objected, arguing that any progress by the mother was inadequate. Focusing on the child's residence in the same foster placement for over ten months, the court found the state's plan hopeful but insufficient.

On the following day, just before the termination hearing was to begin, the department brought the possible applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act1 to the court's attention, informing the court that the child's grandmother had mentioned her Native American ancestry in a meeting the day before. In response to the guardian's expressed concerns about dilatory tactics and the court's query about an earlier alleged disclaimer by the child's mother, the mother's attorney represented that she disputed ever having been asked about her Native American roots. The attorney further represented that the child's grandmother had disclosed to the department, as early as August or September 2004, the fact that her own grandmother had received tribal scholarships. The court acknowledged that the child's Indian heritage had clearly been reported in the search documents, and it reprimanded the department for failing to investigate further during the ensuing ten months. Nevertheless, rather than postpone the termination hearing until notice could be given according to the Act, which the court felt would interfere with permanency for the child, it took testimony to resolve for itself the applicability of the Act.

The court heard directly from both the department of human services caseworker and the child's grandmother. The caseworker acknowledged that she had never personally discussed the Indian Child Welfare Act with the child's mother and that she was not familiar with tribal enrollment requirements. She also testified, however, that the child's grandmother had expressed concern about X.H. being disconnected from her Native American cultural traditions. The grandmother herself testified that she was of Cherokee descent; that she had been actively researching her heritage for more than a year; and that she was in direct contact with the "Cherokee Nation through Alabama." When questioned about a previous concession that X.H. should remain with the foster family, the grandmother explained that she had since come to realize how difficult it would be for her to maintain the contact with her granddaughter anticipated under the promised arrangement. While she conceded that she had never before brought the issue of her grandchild's Indian status to the court's attention, she maintained that she had raised it numerous times with the department.

Concluding that the Act did not apply, the court articulated several reasons for its decision. The court found as a matter of fact that the mother had initially denied the applicability of the Act, and even though she may have been under the influence of methamphetamine at the time, the long pendency of the case had given her an opportunity to correct that statement if she wished. The court also considered it suspicious that the child's grandmother had not raised the applicability of the Act before the court until a continuance was denied. The court was openly skeptical that the grandmother expressed concern for protecting X.H.'s Indian heritage only after contact with her became an issue. Finally, although the court indicated that evidence of the child's eligibility for membership in a federally recognized tribe was insufficiently convincing either way, it concluded that neither the child nor her mother was currently a tribal member, and the expectation of a response to the grandmother's inquiries from the Cherokee tribe was insufficient to trigger ICWA applicability.

The hearing proceeded on the issue of termination. In light of the mother's 15-year methamphetamine habit, her admitted neglect and abuse of her children, and her incarceration, the court terminated her parental rights. Largely to avoid further disruption in X.H.'s life, the court chose not to place her with her grandmother.

The mother appealed, assigning error to the court's failure to comply with the tribal notice requirements of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and the Colorado Children's Code. Acknowledging that "it may have been better practice to follow the notice procedures . . . upon learning that there was some contention of Indian ancestry," the court of appeals nevertheless affirmed. The appellate court held that while the tribe's determination of its membership would be conclusive, the trial court must ascertain whether the child is Indian in the absence of such a determination. As it was undisputed that neither X.H. nor her mother was a "registered" member of an Indian tribe, the court of appeals concluded that ICWA applicability had not been proven.

II.

In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act, 92 Stat. 3069, 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1963, out of a mounting concern over child welfare practices resulting in the involuntary separation of alarming numbers of Indian children from their families for placement in non-Indian homes or institutions. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 32, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989). Congress found that "the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe." 25 U.S.C. § 1901(3). In the Act, it therefore established minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families. 25 U.S.C. § 1902.

The clear policy choice of the Act is to place Indian children within the Indian community whenever possible. Holyfield, 490 U.S. at 37, 109 S.Ct. 1597. In furtherance of that goal, the Act vests jurisdiction over custody matters, under certain circumstances, in the tribal courts, while prescribing procedural and substantive standards, including a right of intervention by Indian tribes in proceedings that remain in the state courts. E.g., 25 U.S.C. §§ 1911, 1912; see Holyfield, 490 U.S. at 36-37, 109 S.Ct. 1597. The Colorado General Assembly has expressly provided for compliance with, and consistent application of, the federal Act in the Colorado Children's Code. See § 19-1-126, C.R.S. (2005).

In the past, the United States Supreme Court has emphasized the unique relationship that exists between the federal government and Indian tribes. See Montana v. Blackfeet Tribe of Indians, 471 U.S. 759, 105 S.Ct. 2399, 85 L.Ed.2d 753 (1985). The United States Constitution vests...

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