In matters of child custody and welfare, children of native American Indian heritage have a unique status under federal law, entitling American Indian tribes to intervene on the children’s behalf in family and juvenile court.
The threshold question then is: who is an American Indian child for child custody and welfare purposes?
Under federal law, a child must be eligible for membership under the standards of an American Indian tribe for the tribe to be able to intervene in a child custody or welfare case. Those criteria vary from tribe to tribe.
Under an Iowa statute, an American Indian child included a child with some degree of American Indian blood who was not eligible for membership in an American Indian tribe.
That statute made Iowa, along with Washington state and Oklahoma, the only states that have had more relaxed definitions of an American Indian child than under federal law.
On appeal from a ruling permitting the Winnebago tribe to intervene in a child welfare case, the Iowa Supreme Court recently struck down the Iowa statutory definition of an Indian child as overbroad, such that it violated the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.
As a result of the ruling, the child involved in the case under discussion was deemed not to be an American Indian child under federal law, and the American Indian tribe was not permitted to intervene in the case on behalf of the child.
The ruling may send shockwaves through American Indian communities and prompt native American Indian tribes to adjust their standards for membership so as to be more inclusive, so that they may intervene in more cases involving children with some American Indian blood.