ICWA and Indian Heritage: So Much More than “Paperwork”

Native American Art Installation

Photo by Jeff Myers is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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During the summer of 2016, as a 2L law student at the University of Denver, I had the opportunity to intern for the Colorado Office of the Child’s Representative. As part of my duties, I was charged with observing dependency and neglect court proceedings to ensure that children in Colorado are receiving the best representation possible. While observing one particular case, I witnessed an incident that I will never forget. I entered the courtroom and began taking notes per my normal routine. It was a typical dependency and neglect case that began like any other. Then it came time for the Respondent Father’s Counsel to make his inquiry into Father’s potential Indian heritage.

Father’s attorney proceeded to ask his client if he was aware of any Indian heritage in his family. The Father responded in the affirmative, to which his counsel loudly and excitedly exclaimed, “CONGRATULATIONS!” At first I was caught off guard by his enthusiasm. I was even a little excited myself that I had come across an attorney who was similarly motivated by the importance of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) as I was. The excitement soon faded, however, when he continued by saying, “You just bought yourself more paperwork.” I was stunned. Here I was, clearly in the courtroom observing the proceedings and taking notes, and this attorney had the audacity to make a sarcastic mockery of such a significant and influential piece of legislation to his own client on the record. Not only did this attorney disrespect his own client’s heritage, but he also acted in a way that discourages individuals from coming forward with their Indian heritage in dependency proceedings. To me, this incident shows precisely how important it is for professionals in the child welfare system to fully understand the historical significance of ICWA. The purpose of ICWA – to prevent the breakdown of the Indian family through the tribe’s most valuable resource – can never be fulfilled if we, as a child welfare system, discourage those with Indian heritage from coming forward.

To those lacking a firm grasp on the historical relationship between the United States Government and the various sovereign tribes that occupied this land prior to the Constitution, ICWA may be just that: paperwork. It is in the best interests of Indian children and their families to, at the very least, have their tribal heritage respected by the professionals within our system. As a 3L preparing to take the leap into the legal field, I have never been ashamed of the profession I have chosen except for that day. In hindsight, I would sincerely thank this particular attorney for providing me with inspiration and determination to seek to improve the way that professionals within the child welfare system approach ICWA and individuals with Indian heritage.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Jerin Damo

Jerin is a third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of law. He received his B.A. in History from the University of Cincinnati in 2014. Jerin has previous experience as an intern with the National Association of Counsel for Children as well as the Colorado Office of the Child’s Representative. Jerin is currently practicing as Guardian ad litem with NACC under Colorado’s Student Practice Act. In his free time, he enjoys spending time in the mountains with his dog, Stella.

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