ICWA eNotice

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

Location: 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.

Land Characteristics: 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. 

Population: 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.

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BACKGROUND

Problem to Be Addressed

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.

Program History

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.

Principal Chief Bill John Baker signed a proclamation declaring the month of May, Foster Care Awareness month (May 2014).
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PROGRAM DESCRIPTION

Program Goals and Objectives

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.

Program Design

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 Administration

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.

Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare staff, Hallie Oliver, Nikki Baker Limore, Debra James, Joann Checotah, and Teresa Webber, accept a delivery of child safety seats and other items donated by Cherokee Nation Businesses.
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PLANNING & IMPLEMENTATION

Funding

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.

Technical Assistance

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.

Partnerships

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.

Challenges

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.

Lessons Learned 

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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