Bureau of Indian Affairs
Guidelines for State Courts; Indian
Child Custody Proceedings
November 26, 1979
Department of the Interior
67584 Federal Register / Vol. 44, No. 228 / Monday, November 26, 1979 / Notices
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Guidelines for State Courts; Indian Child Custody Proceedings
This notice is published in exercise of authority delegated by the Secretary of the Interior to the Assistant
Secretary – Indian Affairs by 209 DM 8.
There was published in the Federal Register, vol. 44, No. 70/Monday, April 23, 1979 a notice entitled
Recommended Guidelines for State Courts-Indian Child Custody Proceedings. This notice pertained directly to
implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Pub. L. 95-608, 92 Stat. 3069, 25 U.S.C. 1901 et seq.
A subsequent Federal Register notice which invited public comment concerning the above was published on
June 5, 1979. As a result of comments received, the recommended guidelines were revised and are provided
below in final form.
Although the rulemaking procedures of the Administration Procedures Act have been followed in developing
these guidelines, they are not published as regulations because they are not intended to have binding legislative
effect. Many of these guidelines represent the interpretation of the Interior Department of certain provisions of
the Act. Other guidelines provide procedures which, if followed, will help assure that rights guaranteed by the
Act are protected when state courts decide Indian child custody matters. To the extent that the Department’s
interpretations of the Act are correct, contrary interpretations by the courts would be violations of the Act. If
procedures different from those recommended in these guidelines are adopted by a state, their adequacy to
protect rights guaranteed by the Act will have to be judged on their own merits.
Where congress expressly delegates to the Secretary the primary responsibility for interpreting a statutory term,
regulations interpreting that term have legislative effect. Courts are not free to set aside those regulations simply
because they would have interpreted that statute in a different manner. Where, however, primary responsibility
for interpreting a statutory term rests with the courts, administrative interpretations of statutory terms are given
important but not controlling significance. Batterton v. Francis, 432 U.S. 416, 424-425 (1977)
In other words, when the Department writes rules needed to carry out responsibilities congress has explicitly
imposed on the Department, those rules are binding. A violation of those rules is a violation of the law. When,
however, the Department writes rules or guidelines advising some other agency how it should carry out
responsibilities explicitly assigned to it by congress, those rules or guidelines are not, by themselves, binding.
Courts will take what this Department has to say into account in such instances, but they are free to act contrary
to what the Department has said if they are convinced that the Department’s guidelines are not required by the
Portions of the Indian Child Welfare Act do expressly delegate to the Secretary of the Interior responsibility for
interpreting statutory language. For example, under 25 U.S.C. 1918, the Secretary is directed to determine
whether a plan for reassumption of jurisdiction is "feasible" as that term is used in the statute. This and other
areas where primary responsibility for implementing portions of the Act rest with this Department, are covered
in regulations promulgated on July 31, 1979, at 44 FR 45092.
Primary responsibility for interpreting other language used in the Act, however, rests with the courts that decide
Indian child custody cases. For example, the legislative history of the Act states explicitly that the use of the
term "good cause" was designed to provide state courts with flexibility in determining the disposition of a
placement proceeding involving an Indian child. S. rep. No. 95-597, 95 Cong., 1 Sess. 17 (1977). The
Department’s interpretation of statutory language of this type is published in these guidelines.
Some commenters asserted that congressional delegation to this Department of authority to promulgate
regulations with binding legislative effect with respect to all provisions of the Act is found at 25 U.S.C. 1952,
which states, "Within one hundred and eighty days after November 8, 1978, the Secretary shall promulgate
such rules and regulations as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this chapter." Promulgation of
regulations with legislative effect with respect to most of the responsibilities of state or tribal courts under the
Act, however, is not necessary to carry out the Act. State and tribal courts are fully capable of carrying out the
responsibilities imposed on them by Congress without being under the direct supervision of this Department.
Nothing in the legislative history indicates that Congress intended this department to exercise supervisory
control over state or tribal courts or to legislate for them with respect to Indian child custody matters. For
congress to assign to an administrative agency such supervisory control over courts would be an extraordinary
Nothing in the language or legislative history of 25 U.S.C. 1952 compels the conclusion that Congress
intended to vest this Department with such extraordinary power. Both the language and the legislative history
indicate that the purpose of that section was simply to assure that the Department moved promptly to
promulgate regulations to carry out the responsibilities Congress had assigned it under the Act.
Assignment of supervisory authority over the courts to an administrative agency is a measure so at odds with
concepts of both federalism and separation of powers that it should not be imputed to Congress in the absence
of an express declaration of congressional intent to that effect.
Some commenters also recommended that the guidelines be published as regulations and that the decision of
whether the law permits such regulations to be binding be left to the court. That approach has not been adopted
because the Department has an obligation not to assert authority that it concludes it does not have.
Each section of the revised guidelines is accompanied by commentary explaining why the Department believes
states should adopt that section and to provide some guidance where the guidelines themselves may need to be
interpreted in the light of specific circumstances.
The original guidelines used the word "should" instead of "shall" in most provisions. The term "should" was
used to communicate the fact that the guidelines were the Department’s interpretations of the Act and were not
intended to have binding legislative effect. Many commenters, however, interpreted the use of "should" as an
attempt by this Department to make statutory requirements themselves optional. That was not the intent. If a
state adopts those guidelines, they should be stated in mandatory terms. For that reason the word "shall" has
replaced "should" in the revised guidelines. The status of these guidelines as interpretative rather than legislative
in nature is adequately set out in the introduction.
In some instances a state may wish to establish rules that provide even greater protection for rights guaranteed
by the Act than those suggested by these guidelines. These guidelines are not intended to discourage such
action. Care should be taken, however, that the provision of additional protections to some parties to a child
custody proceeding does not deprive other parties of rights guaranteed to them by the Act.
In some instances the guidelines do little more than restate the statutory language. This is done in order to make
the guidelines more complete so that they can be followed without the need to refer to the statute in every
instance. Omission of any statutory language, of course, does not in any way affect the applicability of the
A number of commenters recommended that special definitions of residence and domicile be included in the
guidelines. Such definitions were not included because these terms are well defined under existing state law.
There is no indication that these state law definitions tend to undermine in any way the purposes of the Act.
Recommending special definitions for the purpose of this Act alone would simply provide unnecessary
complication in the law.
A number of commenters recommended that the guidelines include recommendations for tribal-state agreements
under 25 U.S.C. 1919. A number of other commenters, however, criticized the one provision in the original
guidelines addressing that subject as tending to impose on such agreements restrictions that congress did not
intend should be imposed. Because of the wide variation in the situations and attitudes of states and tribes, it is
difficult to deal with that issue in the context of guidelines. The Department is currently developing materials to
aid states and tribe with such agreements. The Department hopes to have those materials available later to have
those materials available later this year. For these reasons, the provision in the original guidelines concerning
tribal-state agreements has been deleted from the guidelines.
The Department has also received many requests for assistance from tribal courts in carrying out the new
responsibilities resulting from the passage of this Act. The Department intends to provide additional guidance
and assistance in the area also in the future. Providing guidance to state courts was given a higher priority
because the Act imposes many more procedures on state courts than it does on tribal courts.
Many commenters have urged the Department to discuss the effect of the Act on the financial responsibilities of
states and tribes to provide services to Indian children. Many such services are funded in large part by the
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The policies and regulations of that Department will have a
significant impact on the issue of financial responsibility. Officials of Interior and HEW will be discussing this
issue with each other. It is anticipated that more detailed guidance on questions of financial responsibility will
be provided as a result of those consultations.
One commenter recommended that the Department establish a monitoring procedure of exercise its right under
25 U.S.C. 1915(e) to review state court placement records. HEW currently reviews state placement records on a
systematic basis as part of its responsibilities with respect to statutes it administers. Interior Department officials
are discussing with HEW officials the establishment of a procedure for collecting data to review compliance
with the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Inquiries concerning these recommended guidelines may be directed to the nearest of the following regional
and field offices of the Solicitor for the Interior Department:
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the interior, 510 L. Street, Suite 408,
Anchorage, Alaska 99501, (907) 265-5302.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Richard B. Russell Federal
Building, 75 Spring St., SW, Suite 1328, Atlanta, Georgia 30303, (404) 221-4447.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, c/o U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,
Suite 306, 1 Gateway Center, Newton corner, Massachusetts 02156, (617) 829-0258.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, 685 Federal Building, Fort Snelling,
Twin Cities, Minnesota 55111, (612) 725-3540.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 25007, Denver Federal
Center, Denver, Colorado 80225, (303) 234-3175.
Office of the Field Solicitor, department of the Interior, P.O. box 549, Aberdeen, South
Dakota 57401, (605) 225-7254
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 25007, Denver, Colorado
80225, (303) 234-3175.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 549, Aberdeen, south
Dakota 57401 (605) 225-7254.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 1538, Billings, Montana
59103, (406) 245-6711.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Room E-2753, 2800 cottage
Way, Sacramento, California 95825, (916) 484-4331.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Valley Bank Center, Suite 280, 201
North Central Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona 85073. (602) 261-4758.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, 3610 Central Avenue, Suite 104,
Riverside, California 92506, (714) 787-1580.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Window Rock, Arizona 86615 (602)
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Room 3068, Page Belcher
Federal Building, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74103, (918) 581-7501.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Room 7102, Federal building &
courthouse, 500 Gold Avenue, S.W. Albuquerque, New Mexico 87101, (505) 766-2547.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 397, W.C.D. Office
Building, Route 2 Anadarko, Oklahoma 73005, (405) 427-0673.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 1505, Room 318,Federal
Building, 5th and Broadway, Muskogee, Oklahoma 74401, (918) 683-3111.
Office of the Field Solicitor, Department of the Interior, c/o Osage Agency, Grandview
Avenue, Pawhuska, Oklahoma 74056 (918) 287-3431.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of Interior, Suite 6201, Federal Building, 125
South State Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84138, (801)524-5877.
Office of the Regional Solicitor, Department of the Interior, Lloyd 500 Building, Suite 807,
500 N.E. Multnomah Street, Portland, Oregon 97232, (503) 231-2125.
Guidelines for State Courts
B. Pre-trial requirements
1. Determination that child is an Indian
2. Determination of Indian child’s tribe
1. Determination that placement is covered by the Act
2. determination of jurisdiction
3. Notice requirements
4. Time limits and extensions
5. Emergency removal of an Indian child
6. Improper removal from custody
A. Requests for transfer to tribal court
1. Petitions under 25 U.S.C.§ 1911(b) for transfer of proceeding
2. Criteria and procedures for ruling on 25 U.S.C.§ 1911(b) transfer petitions
3. Determination of good cause to the contrary
4. Tribal court declination of transfer
A. Adjudication of involuntary placements, adoptions or terminations of parental rights
1. Access to reports
2. Efforts to alleviate need to remove child from parents or Indian custodians
3. Standards of evidence
4. Qualified expert witnesses
A. Voluntary proceedings
1. Execution of consent
2. Content of consent document
3. Withdrawal of consent to placement
4. Withdrawal of consent to adoption
1. Adoptive placements
2. Foster care or pre-adoptive placements
3. Good cause to modify preferences
A. Post-trial rights
1. Petition to vacate adoptions
2. Adult adoptee rights
3. Notice of change in child’s status
4. Maintenance of records
1. Congress through the Indian Child Welfare Act has expressed its clear preference for keeping Indian
children with their families, deferring to tribal judgement on matters concerning the custody of tribal
children, and placing Indian children who must be removed from their homes within their own families or
Indian tribes. Proceedings in state courts involving the custody of Indian children shall follow strict
procedures and meet stringent requirements to justify any result in any individual case contrary to these
preferences. The Indian Child Welfare Act, the federal regulations implementing the Act, the
recommended guidelines and nay state statutes, regulations or rules promulgated to implement the Act
shall be liberally construed in favor of a result that is consistent with these preferences. Any ambiguities
in any of such statutes, regulations, rules or guidelines shall be resolved in favor of the result that is most
consistent with these preferences.
2. In any child custody proceedings where applicable state or other federal law provides a higher standard of
protection to the rights of the parent or Indian custodian than the protection accorded under the Indian Child
Welfare Act, the state court shall apply the state or other federal law, provided that application of that law does
not infringe any right accorded by the Indian Child Welfare Act to an Indian tribe or child.
The purpose of this section is to apply to the Indian Child Welfare Act the canon of construction that
remedial statutes are to be liberally construed to achieve their purposes. The three major purposes are
derived from a reading to the Act itself. In order to fully implement the congressional intent the rule shall
be applied to all implementing rules and state legislation as well.
Subsection A.(2) applies to canon of statutory construction that specific language shall be given
precedence over general language. Congress has given certain specific rights to tribes and Indian children.
For example, the tribe has a right to intervene in involuntary custody proceedings. The child has a right
to learn of tribal affiliation upon becoming 18 years old. Congress did not intend 25 U.S.C. 1921 to have
the effect of eliminating those rights where a court concludes they are in derogation of a parental right
provided under a state statute. Congress intended for this section to apply primarily in those instances
where a state provides greater protection for a right accorded to parents under the Act. Examples of this
include State laws which: impose a higher burden of proof than the Act for removing a child from a
home, give the parents more time to prepare after receiving notice, require more effective notice, impose
stricter emergency removal procedure requirements on those removing a child, give parents greater access
to documents, or contain additional safeguard to assure the voluntariness of consent.
B. Pretrial requirements
B.1. Determination That Child Is an Indian
(a). When a state court has reason to believe a child involved in a child custody
proceeding is an Indian, the court shall seek verification of the child’s status from
either the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the child’s tribe. In a voluntary placement
proceeding where a consenting parent evidences a desire for anonymity, the court
shall make its inquiry in a manner that will not cause the parent’s identity to become
(b) (i) The determination by a tribe that a child is or is not a member of that tribe, is or
is not eligible for membership in that tribe, or that the biological parent is or is not a
member of that tribe is conclusive.
i. Absent a contrary determination by the tribe that is alleged to be the Indian child’s tribe, a
determination by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that a child is or is not an Indian child is conclusive.
a. Circumstances under which a state court has reason to believe a child involved in a child custody
proceeding is an Indian include but are not limited to the following:
i. Any party to the case, Indian tribe Indian organization or public or private agency informs the court
that the child is and Indian child.
ii. Any public or state-licensed agency involved in child protection services or family support has
discovered information which suggests that the child is an Indian child.
iii. The child who is the subject of the proceeding gives the court reason to believe he or she is an
iv. The residence or the domicile of the child, his or her biological parents, or the Indian custodian is
known by the court to be or is shown to be a predominantly Indian community.
v. An officer of the court involved in the proceeding has knowledge that the child may be an Indian
This guideline makes clear that the best source of information on whether a particular child is Indian is the tribe
itself. It is the tribe’s prerogative to determine membership criteria.
(1942). Because of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s long experience in determining who is an Indian for a
variety of purposes, its determinations are also entitled to great deference. ,
231, U.S. (1913).
Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law
See, e.g., United States v Sandoval
Although tribal verification is preferred, a court may want to seek verification from the BIA in those voluntary
placement cases where the parent has requested anonymity and the tribe does not have a system for keeping
child custody matters confidential.
Under the Act confidentially is given a much higher priority in voluntary proceedings than in involuntary ones.
The Act mandates a tribal right of notice and intervention in involuntary proceedings but not in voluntary ones.
Cf. 25 U.S.C. For voluntary placements, however, the Act specifically directs state courts to respect parental
requests for confidentiality. 25 U.S.C. The most common voluntary placement involves a newborn infant.
Confidentiality has traditionally been a high priority in such placements. The Act reflects that traditional
approach by requiring deference to requests for anonymity in voluntary placements but not in involuntary ones.
This guideline specifically provides that anonymity not be compromised in seeking verification of Indian status.
If anonymity were compromised at that point, the statutory requirement that requests for anonymity be
respected in applying the preferences would be meaningless.
Enrollment is not always required in order to be a member of a tribe. Some tribes do not have written rolls.
Others have rolls that list only persons that were members as of a certain date. Enrollment is the common
evidentiary means of establishing Indian status, but it is not the only means nor is it necessarily
determinative. United States v. Brocheau, 597 F. 2nd 1260, 1263 (9th Cir. 1979)
The guidelines also list several circumstances which shall trigger an inquiry by the court and petitioners to
determine whether a child is an Indian for purposes of this Act. This listing is not intended to be complete, but it
does list the most common circumstances giving rise to a reasonable belief that a child may be an Indian.
B.2. Determination of Indian Child’s Tribe
a. Where an Indian child is a member of more than one tribe or is eligible for membership in more
than one tribe but is not a member of any of them, the court is called upon to determine with which
tribe the child has more significant contacts.
b. The court shall send the notice specified in recommended guideline B.4. to each such tribe. The
notice shall specify the other tribe or tribes that are being considered as the child’s tribe and invite
each tribe’s views on which tribe shall be so designated.
c. In determining which tribe shall be designated the Indian child’s tribe, the court shall consider,
among other things, the following factors:
i. length of residence on or near the reservation of each tribe and frequency of contacts
with each tribe;
ii. child’s participation in activities of each tribe;
iii. child’s fluency in the language of each tribe;
iv. whether there has been a previous adjudication with respect to the child by a court of
one of the tribes;
v. residence on or near one of the tribe’s reservation by the child’s relatives;
vi. tribal membership of custodial parent or Indian custodian;
vii. interest asserted by each tribe in response to the notice specified in subsection B.2.(b)
of these guidelines; and
viii. the child’s self identification.
a. The court’s determination together with the reasons for it shall be set out in a written document and
made a part of the record of the proceeding. A copy of that document shall be sent to each party to
the proceeding and to each person or governmental agency that received notice of the proceeding.
b. If the child is a member of only one tribe, that tribe shall be designated the Indian child’s tribe even
thought the child is eligible for membership in another tribe. If a child becomes a member of one
tribe during or after the proceeding, that tribe shall be designated as the Indian child’s tribe with
respect to all subsequent actions related to the proceeding. If the child becomes a member of a
tribe other than the one designated by the court as the Indian child’s tribe, actions taken based on
the court’s determination prior to the child’s becoming a tribal member continue to be valid.
This guideline requires the court to notify all tribes that are potentially the Indian child’s tribe so that each tribe
may assert its claim to that status and the court may have the benefit of the views of each tribe. Notification of
all the tribes is also necessary so the court can consider the comparative interest of each tribe in the child’s
welfare in making its decision. That factor has long been regarded an important consideration in making child
The significant factors listed in this section are based on recommendations by tribal officials involved in child
welfare matters. The Act itself and the legislative history make it clear that tribal rights are to be based on the
existence of a political relationship between the family and the tribe. For that reason, the guidelines make actual
tribal membership of the child conclusive on this issue.
The guidelines do provide, however, that previous decisions of a court made on its own determination of the
Indian child’s tribe are not invalidated simply because the child becomes a member of a different tribe. This
provision is included because of the importance of stability and continuity to a child who has been placed
outside the home by a court. If a child becomes a member before a placement is made or before a change of
placement becomes necessary for other reasons, however, then that membership decision can be taken into
account without harm to the child’s need for stable relationships.
We have received several recommendations that the "Indian child’s tribe" status be accorded to all tribes in
which a child is eligible for membership. The fact that Congress, in the definition of "Indian child’s tribe,"
provided a criterion for determining which is the Indian child’s tribe, is a clear indication of legislative intent
that there be only one such tribe for each child. For purposes of transfer of jurisdiction, there obviously can be
only one tribe to adjudicate the case. To give more than one tribe "Indian child’s tribe" status for purposes of
the placement preferences would dilute the preference accorded by Congress to the tribe with which the child
has the more significant contacts.
A right of intervention could be accorded a tribe with which a child has less significant contacts without
undermining the right of the other tribe. A state court can, if it wishes and state law permits, permit intervention
by more than one tribe. It could also give a second tribe preference in placement after attempts to place a child
with a member of the first tribe or in a home or institution designated by the first tribe had proved unsuccessful.
So long as the special rights of Indian child’s tribe are respected, giving special status to the tribe with the
less significant contacts is not prohibited by the Act and may, in many instances, be a good way to comply with
the spirit of the Act.
Determination of the Indian child’s tribe for purposes of this Act shall not serve as any precedent for other
situations. The standards in this statute and these guidelines are designed with child custody matters in mind. A
difference determination may be entirely appropriate in other legal contexts.
B.3. Determination That Placement Is Covered by the Act
a. Although most juvenile delinquency proceedings are not covered by the Act, the Act does apply to
status offenses, such as truancy and incorrigibility, which can only be committed by children, and
to any juvenile delinquency proceeding that results in the termination of a parental relationship.
b. Child custody disputes arising in the context of divorce or separation proceedings or similar
domestic relations proceedings are not covered by the Act so long as custody is awarded to one of
c. Voluntary placements which do not operate to prohibit the child’s parent or Indian custodian from
regaining custody of the child at any time are not covered by the Act. Where such placements are
made pursuant to a written agreement, that agreement shall state explicitly the right of the parent or
custodian to regain custody of the child upon demand.
The purpose of this section is to deal with some of the questions the Department has been receiving concerning
the coverage of the Act.
The entire legislative history makes it clear that the Act is directed primarily at attempts to place someone other
than the parent or Indian custodian in charge of raising an Indian child-whether on a permanent or temporary
basis. Although there is some overlap, juvenile delinquency proceedings are primarily designed for other
purposes. Where the child is taken out of the home for committing a crime it is usually to protect society from
further offenses by the child and to punish the child in order to persuade that child and others not to commit
Placements based on status offenses (actions that are not a crime when committed by an adult), however, are
usually premised on the conclusion that the present custodian of the child is not providing adequate care or
supervision. To the extent that a status offense poses any immediate danger to society, it is usually also
punishable as an offense which would be a crime if committed by an adult. For that reason status offenses are
treated the same as dependency proceedings and are covered by the Act and these guidelines, while other
juvenile delinquency placements are excluded.
While the Act excludes based on an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult, it does
cover terminations of parental rights even where they are based on an act which would be a crime if committed
by an adult. Such terminations are not intended as punishment and do not prevent the child from committing
further offenses. They are based on the conclusion that someone other than the present custodian of the child
should be raising the child. Congress has concluded that courts shall make such judgments only on the basis of
evidence that serious physical or emotional harm to the child is likely to result unless the child is removed.
The Act excludes from coverage an award of custody to one of the parents "in a divorce proceeding." If
construed narrowly, this provision would leave custody awards resulting from proceedings between husband
and wife for separate maintenance, but not for dissolution of the marriage bond within the coverage of the Act.
Such a narrow interpretation would not be in accord with the intent of Congress. The legislative history
indicates that the exemption for divorce proceedings, in part, was included in response to the views of this
Department that the protections provided by this Act are not needed in proceedings between parents. In terms
of the purposes of this Act, there is no reason to treat separate maintenance or similar domestic relations
proceedings differently from divorce proceedings. For that reason the statutory term "divorce proceeding" is
construed to include other domestic relations proceedings between spouses.
The Act also excludes from its coverage any placements that do not deprive the parents or Indian custodians of
the right to regain custody of the child upon demand. Without this exception a court appearance would be
required every time an Indian child left home to go to school. Court appearances would also be required for
many informal caretaking arrangements that Indian parents and custodians sometimes make for their children.
This statutory exemption is restated here in the hope that it will reduce the instances in which Indian parents are
unnecessarily inconvenienced by being required to give consent in court to such informal arrangements.
Some private groups and some states enter into formal written agreements with parents for temporary custody
( Alaska Statutes § 47.10.230). The guidelines recommend that the parties to such agreements explicitly
provide for return of the child upon demand if they do not wish the Act to apply to such placements. Inclusion
of such a provision is advisable because courts frequently assume that when an agreement is reduced to writing,
the parties have only those rights specifically written into the agreement.
B.4. Determination of Jurisdiction
a. In any Indian child custody proceeding in state court, the court shall determine the residence and
domicile of the child. Except as provided in Section B.7. of these guidelines, if either the residence
or domicile is on a reservation where the tribe exercises exclusive jurisdiction over child custody
proceedings, the proceedings in state court shall be dismissed.
b. If the Indian child has previously resided or been domiciled on the reservation, the state court shall
contact the tribal court to determine whether the child is a ward of the tribal court. Except as
provided in Sections B.7. of these guidelines, if the child is a ward of a tribal court, the state court
proceedings shall be dismissed.
The purpose of this section is to remind the state court of the need to determine whether it has jurisdiction
under the Act. The action is dismissed as soon as it is determined that the court lacks jurisdiction except in
emergency situations. The procedures for emergency situations are set out in Section B.7.
B.5. Notice Requirements
a. In any involuntary child custody proceeding, the state court shall make inquiries to determine if the
child involved is a member of an Indian tribe or if a parent of the child is a member of an Indian
tribe and the child is eligible for membership in an Indian tribe.
b. In any involuntary Indian child custody proceeding, notice of the proceeding shall be sent to the
parents and Indian custodians, if any, and to any tribes that may be the Indian child’s tribe by
registered mail with return receipt requested. The notice shall be written in clear and
understandable language and include the following information:
i. The name of the Indian child.
ii. His or her tribal affiliation.
iii. A copy of the petition, complaint or other document by which the proceeding was
iv. The name of the petitioner and the name and address of the petitioner’s attorney.
v. A statement of the right of the biological parents or Indian custodians and the Indian
child’s tribe to intervene in the proceeding.
vi. A statement that if the parents or Indian custodians are unable to afford counsel,
counsel will be appointed to represent them.
vii. A statement of the right of the natural parents or Indian custodians and the Indian
child’s tribe to have, on request, twenty days (or such additional time as may be
permitted under state law) to prepare for the proceedings.
viii. The location, mailing address and telephone number of the court.
ix. A statement of the right of the parents or Indian custodians or the Indian child’s tribe
to petition the court to transfer the proceeding to the Indian child’s tribal court.
x. The potential legal consequences of an adjudication on future custodial rights of the
parents or Indian custodians.
xi. A statement in the notice to the tribe that since child custody proceedings are usually
conducted on a confidential basis, tribal officials should keep confidential the
information contained in the notice concerning the particular proceeding and not
reveal it to anyone who does not need the information in order to exercise the tribe’s
right under the Act.
a. The tribe, parents or Indian custodians receiving notice from the petitioner of the pendency of a
child custody proceeding has the right, upon request, to be granted twenty days (or such additional
time as may be permitted under state law) from the date upon which the notice was received to
prepare for the proceeding.
b. The original or a copy of each notice sent pursuant to this section shall be filed with the court
together with any return receipts or other proof of service.
c. Notice may be personally served on any person entitled to receive notice in lieu of mail service.
d. If a parent or Indian custodian appears in court without an attorney, the court shall inform him or
her of the right to appointed counsel, the right to request that the proceeding be transferred to tribal
court or to object to such transfer, the right to request additional time to prepare for the proceeding
and the right (if the parent or Indian custodian in not already a party) to intervene in the
e. If the court or a petitioning party has reason to believe that a parent or Indian custodian is not likely
to understand the contents of the notice because of lack of adequate comprehension of written
English, a copy of the notice shall be sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs agency nearest to the
residence of that person requesting that Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel arrange to have the
notice explained to that person in the language that he or she best understands.
This section recommends that state courts routinely inquire of participants in child custody proceedings
whether the child is an Indian. If anyone asserts that the child is an Indian or that there is reason to believe the
child may be an Indian, then the court shall contact the tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs for verification.
Refer to section B.1. and B.2. of these guidelines.
This section specifies the information to be contained in the notice. This information is necessary so the persons
who receive notice will be able to exercise their rights in a timely manner. Subparagraph (xi) provides that
tribes shall be requested to assist in maintaining the confidentiality of the proceeding. Confidentiality may be
difficult to maintain-especially in involuntary proceedings. It is reasonable, however, to ask tribal officials to
maintain as much confidentiality as possible consistent with the exercise of tribal rights under the Act.
The time limits are minimum ones required by the Act. In many instances, more time may be available under
state court procedures or because of the circumstances of the particular case.
In such instances, the notice shall state that additional time is available.
The Act requires notice to the parent Indian custodian. At a minimum, parents must be notified if termination
of parental rights is a potential outcome since it is their relationship to the child that is at stake. Similarly, the
Indian custodians must be notified of any action that could lead to the custodians’ losing custody of the child.
Even where only custody is an issue, noncustodial parents clearly have a legitimate interest in the matter.
Although notice to both parents and Indian custodians may not be required in all instances by the Act or the
Fourteenth Amendment to the U.s. Constitution, providing notice to both is in keeping with the spirit of the Act.
For that reason, these guidelines recommend notice be sent to both.
Subsection (d) requires filing the notice with the court so there will be a complete record of efforts to comply
with the Act.
Subsection (e) authorizes personal services since it is superior to mail services and provides greater protection
or rights as authorized by 25 U.S.C. 1921. Since serving the notices does not involve any assertion of
jurisdiction over the person served, personal notices may be served without regard to state or reservation
Subsections (f) and (g) provide procedures to increase the likelihood that rights are understood by parents and
B.6. Time Limits and Extensions
a. A tribe, parent or Indian custodian entitled to notice of the pendency of a child custody proceeding
has a right, upon request, to be granted an additional twenty days from the date upon which notice
was received to prepare for participation in the proceeding.
b. The proceeding may not begin until all of the following dates have passed:
(i) ten days after the parent or Indian custodian (or Secretary where the
parent or Indian custodian is unknown to the petitioner) has received
(ii) ten days after the parent or Indian child’s tribe (or the Secretary if the
Indian child’s tribe is unknown to the petitioner) has received notice;
i. thirty days after the parent or Indian custodian has received notice if the parent or
Indian custodian has requested an additional twenty days to prepare for the
ii. Thirty days after the Indian child’s tribe has received notice if the Indian child’s tribe
has requested an additional twenty days to prepare for the proceeding.
a. The time limits listed in this section are minimum time periods required by the Act. The court may
grant more time to prepare where state law permits.
This section attempts to clarify the waiting periods required by the Act after notice has been received of an
involuntary Indian child custody proceeding. Two independent rights are involved-the right of the parents or
Indian custodians and the right of the Indian child’s tribe. The proceeding may not begin until the waiting
periods to which both are entitled have passed.
This section also makes clear that additional extensions of time may be granted beyond the minimum required
by the Act.
B.7. Emergency Removal of an Indian Child
a. Whenever an Indian child is removed from the physical custody of the child’s parents or Indian
custodians pursuant to the emergency removal or custody provisions of state law, the agency
responsible for the removal action shall immediately cause an inquiry to be made as to the
residence and domicile of the child.
b. When a court order authorizing continued emergency physical custody is sought, the petition for
that order shall be accompanied by an affidavit containing the following information:
(i) The name, age and last known address of the Indian child.
i. The name and address of the child’s parents and Indian custodians, if any. If such
persons are unknown, a detailed explanation of what efforts have been made to locate
them shall be included.
i. Facts necessary to determine the residence and the domicile of the Indian child and
whether either the residence or domicile is on an Indian reservation. If either the
residence or domicile is believed to be on an Indian reservation, the name of the
reservation shall be stated.
ii. The tribal affiliation of the child and of the parents and/or Indian custodians.
iii. A specific and detailed account of the circumstances that lead the agency responsible
for the emergency removal of the child to take that action.
iv. If the child is believed to reside or be domiciled on a reservation where the tribe
exercises exclusive jurisdiction over child custody matters, a statement of efforts that
have been made and are being made to transfer the child to the tribe’s jurisdiction.
v. A statement of the specific actions that have been taken to assist the parents or Indian
custodians so the child may safely be returned to their custody.
a. If the Indian child is not restored to the parents or Indian custodians or jurisdiction is not
transferred to the tribe, the agency responsible for the child’s removal must promptly commence a
state court proceeding for foster care placement. If the child resides or is domiciled on a reservation
where the tribe exercises exclusive jurisdiction over child custody matters, such placement must
terminate as soon as the imminent physical damage or harm to the child which resulted in the
emergency removal no longer exists or as soon as the tribe exercises jurisdiction over the casewhichever
b. Absent extraordinary circumstances, temporary emergency custody shall not be continued for more
than 90 days without a determination by the court, supported by clear and convincing evidence and
the testimony of at least one qualified expert witness, that custody of the child by the parent or
Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child
Since jurisdiction under the Act is based on domicile and residence rather than simple physical presence, there
may be instances in which action must be taken with respect to a child who is physically located off a
reservation but is subject to exclusive tribal jurisdiction. In such instances the tribe will usually not be able to
take swift action to exercise its jurisdiction. For that reason Congress authorized states to take temporary
Since emergency action must be taken without the careful advance deliberation normally required, procedures
must be established to assure that the emergency actions are quickly subjected to review. This section provides
procedures for prompt review of such emergency actions. It presumes the state already has such review
procedures and only prescribes additional procedures that shall be followed in cases involving Indian children.
The legislative history clearly states that placements under such emergency procedures are to be as short as
possible. If the emergency ends, the placement shall end. State action shall also end as soon as the tribe is ready
to take over the case.
Subsection (d) refers primarily to the period between when the petition is filed and when the trial court renders
its decision. The Act requires that, except for emergencies, Indian children are not to be removed from their
parents unless a court finds clear and convincing evidence that the child would be in serious danger unless
removed from the home. Unless there is some kind of time limit on the length of an "emergency removal" (that
is, any removal not made pursuant to a finding by the court that there is clear and convincing evidence that
continued parental custody would make serious physical or emotional harm likely), the safeguards of the Act
could be evaded by use of long-term emergency removals.
Subsection (d) recommends what is, in effect, a speedy trail requirement. The court shall be required to comply
with the requirements of the Act and reach a decision within 90 days unless there are "extraordinary
circumstances" that make additional delay unavoidable.
B.8. Improper Removal From Custody
a. If, in the course of any Indian child custody proceeding, the court has reason to believe that the
child who is the subject of the proceeding may have been improperly removed from the custody of
his or her parent or Indian custodian or that the child has been improperly retained after a visit or
other temporary relinquishment of custody, and that the petitioner is responsible for such removal
or retention, the court shall immediately stay the proceedings until a determination can be made on
the question of improper removal or retention.
b. If the court finds that the petitioner is responsible for an improper removal or retention, the child
shall be immediately returned to his or her parents or Indian custodian.
This section is designed to implement 25 U.S.C. § 1920. Since a finding of improper removal goes to the
jurisdiction of the court to hear the case at all, this section provides that the court will decide the issue as soon
as it arises before proceeding further on his merits.
A. Requests for Transfer to Tribal Court
C.1. Petitions under 25 U.S.C. § 1911(b) for transfer of proceeding
Either parent, the Indian custodian or the Indian child’s tribe may, orally or in writing, request the court to
transfer the Indian child custody proceeding to the tribal court of the child’s tribe. The request shall be made
promptly after receiving notice of the proceeding. If the request is made orally it shall be reduced to writing by
the court and made a part of the record.
Reference is made to 25 U.S.C. 1911(b) in this title of this section deals only with transfers where the child is
not domiciled or residing on an Indian reservation.
So that transfers can occur as quickly and simply as possible, requests can be made orally.
This section specifies that requests are to be made promptly after receiving notice of the proceeding. This is a
modification of the timeliness requirement that appears in the earlier version of the guidelines. Although the
statute permits proceedings to be commenced even before actual notice, those parties do not lose their right to
request a transfer simply because neither the petitioner nor the Secretary was able to locate them earlier.
Permitting late transfer requests by persons and tribes who were notified late may cause some disruption. It will
also, however, provide an incentive to the petitioners to make a diligent effort to give notice promptly in order to
avoid such disruptions.
The Department received a number of comments objecting to any timeliness requirement at all. Commenters
pointed out that the statue does not explicitly require transfer requests to be timely. Some commenters argued
that imposing such a requirement violated tribal and parental rights to intervene at any point in the proceedings
under 25 U.S.C. § 1911(c) of the Act.
While the Act permits intervention at any point in the proceeding, it does not explicitly authorize transfer
requests at any time. Late interventions do not have nearly the disruptive effect on the proceeding that last
minute transfers do. A case that is almost completed does not need to be retried when intervention is permitted.
The problems resulting from late intervention are primarily those of the intervenor, who has lost the opportunity
to influence the portion of the proceedings that was completed prior to intervention.
Although the Act does not explicitly require transfer petitions to be timely, it does authorize the court to refuse
to transfer a case for good cause. When a party who could have petitioned earlier waits until the case is almost
complete to ask that it be transferred to another court and retried, good cause exists to deny the request.
Timeliness is a proven weapon of the courts against disruption caused by negligence or obstructionist tactics on
the part of counsel. If a transfer petition must be honored at any point before judgment, a party could wait to see
how the trail is going in state court and then obtain another trial if it appears the other side will win. Delaying a
transfer request could be used as a tactic to wear down the other side by requiring the case to be tried twice.
The Act was not intended to authorize such tactics and the "good cause" provision is ample authority for the
court to prevent them.
C.2. Criteria and Procedures for Ruling on 25 U.S. C. § 1911(b) Transfer Petitions
a. Upon receipt of a petition to transfer by a parent, Indian custodian or the Indian child’s tribe, the
court must transfer unless either parent objects to such transfer, the tribal court declines jurisdiction,
or the court determines that good cause to the contrary exists for denying the transfer.
b. If the court believes or any party asserts that good cause to the contrary exists, the reasons for such
belief or assertion shall be stated in writing and made available to the parties who are petitioning for
transfer. The petitioners shall have the opportunity to provide the court with their views on whether
or not good cause to deny transfer exists.
Subsection (a) simply states the rule provided in 25 U.S.C. § 1911(b).
Since the Act gives the parents and the tribal court of the Indian child’s tribe an absolute veto over transfers,
there is no need for any adversary proceedings if the parents or the tribal court opposes transfer. Where it is
proposed to deny transfer on the grounds of "good cause," however, all parties need an opportunity to present
their views to the court.
C.3. Determination of Good Cause to the Contrary
a. Good cause not to transfer the proceeding exists if the Indian child’s tribe does not have a tribal
court as defined by the Act to which the case can be transferred.
b. Good cause not to transfer this proceeding may exist if any of the following circumstances exists:
(i) The proceeding was at an advanced stage when the petition to transfer
was received and the petitioner did not file the petition promptly after
receiving notice of the hearing.
i. The Indian child is over twelve years of age and objects to the transfer.
ii. The evidence necessary to decide the case could not be adequately presented in the
tribal court without undue hardship to the parties or the witnesses.
iii. The parents of a child over five years of age are not available and the child has had
little or no contact with the child’s tribe or members of the child’s tribe.
a. Socio-economic conditions and the perceived adequacy of tribal or Bureau of Indian Affairs social
services or judicial systems may not be considered in a determination that good cause exists.
b. The burden of establishing good cause to the contrary shall be on the party opposing the transfer.
All five criteria that were listed in the earlier version of the guidelines were highly controversial. Comments on
the first two criteria were almost unanimously negative. The first criterion was whether the parents were still
living. The second was whether an Indian custodian or guardian for the child had been appointed. These criteria
were criticized as irrelevant and arbitrary. It was argued that children who are orphans or have no appointed
Indian custodian or guardian are no more nor less in need of the Act’s protections that other children. It was
also pointed out that these criteria are contrary to the decision in
, 397 F. Supp. 719 (W.D. Misch 1973), which was explicitly endorsed by the
committee that drafted that Act. The court in that case found that tribal jurisdiction existed even through the
children involved were orphans for whom no guardian had been appointed.
Wisconsin Potwatomies of the Hannahville
Indian Community v. Houston
Although there was some support for the third and fourth criteria, the preponderance of the comment
concerning them was critical. The third criteria was whether the child had little or no contact with his or her
Indian tribe for a significant period of time. These criteria were criticized, in part, because they would virtually
exclude from transfers infants who were born off the reservation. Many argued that the tribe has a legitimate
interest in the welfare of members who have not had significant previous contact with the tribe or the
reservation. Some also argued that these criteria invited the state courts to be making the kind of cultural
decisions that the Act contemplated should be made by tribes. Some argued that the use of vague words in
these criteria accorded state courts too much discretion.
The fifth criteria was whether a child over the age of twelve objected to the transfer. Comment on this criteria
was much more evenly divided and many of the critics were ambivalent. They worried that young teenagers
could be too easily influenced by the judge or by social workers. They also argued that fear of the unknown
would cause many teenagers to make an ill-considered decision against transfer.
The first four criteria in the earlier version were all directed toward the question of whether the child’s
connections with the reservation were so tenuous that transfer back to the tribe is not advised. The
circumstances under which it may be proper for the state court to take such considerations into account are set
out in the revised subsection (iv).
It is recommended that in most cases state court judges not be called upon to determine whether or not a child'’
contacts with a reservation are so limited that a case should not be transferred. This may be a valid
consideration since the shock of changing cultures may, in some cases, be harmful to the child. This
determination, however, can be made by the parent, who has a veto-over transfer to tribal court.
This reasoning does not apply, however, where there is no parent available to make that decision. The
guidelines recommend that state courts be authorized to make such determinations only in those cases where
there is no parent available to make it.
State court authority to make such decisions is limited to those cases where the child is over five years of age.
Most children younger than five years can be expected to adjust more readily to a change in cultural
The fifth criterion has been retained. It is true that teenagers may make some unwise decisions, but it is also true
that their judgment has developed to the extent that their views ought to be taken into account in making
decisions about their lives.
The existence of a tribal court is made an absolute requirement for transfer of a case. Clearly, the absence of a
tribal court is good cause not to ask the tribe to try the case.
Consideration of whether or not the case can be properly tried in tribal court without hardship to the parties or
witnesses was included on the strength of the section-by-section analysis in the House Report on the Act,
which stated with respect to the § 1911(b), "The subsection is intended to permit a State court to apply a
modified doctrine of , in appropriate cases, to insure that the rights of the child as an
Indian, the Indian parents or custodian, and the tribe are fully protected." Where a child is in fact living in a
dangerous situation, he or she should not be forced to remain there simply because the witnesses cannot afford
to travel long distances to court.
forum non conveniens
Application of this criterion will tend to limit transfers to cases involving Indian children who do not live very
far from the reservation. This problem may be alleviated in some instances by having the court come to the
witnesses. The Department is aware of one case under that Act where transfer was conditioned on having the
tribal court meet in the city where the family lived. Some cities have substantial populations of members of tribes
from distant reservations. In such situations some tribes may wish to appoint members who live in those cities as
The timeliness of the petition for transfer, discussed at length in the commentary to section C.1., is listed as a
factor to be considered. Inclusion of this criterion is designed to encourage the prompt exercise of the right to
petition for transfer in order to avoid unnecessary delays. Long periods of uncertainty concerning the future are
generally regarded as harmful to the well-being of children. For that reason, it is especially important to avoid
unnecessary delays in child custody proceedings.
Almost all commenters favored retention of the paragraph stating that reservation socio-economic conditions
and the perceived adequacy of tribal institutions are not to be taken into account in making good cause
determinations. Come commenters did suggest, however, that a case not be transferred if it is clear that a
particular disposition of the case that could only be made by the state court held especially great promise of
benefiting the child.
Such considerations are important but they have not been listed because the Department believes such
judgments are best made by tribal courts. Parties who believe that state court adjudication would be better for
such reasons can present their reasons to the tribal court and urge it to decline jurisdiction. The Department is
aware of one case under the Act where this approach is being used and believes it is more in keeping with the
confidence Congress has expressed in tribal courts.
Since Congress has established a policy of preferring tribal control over custody decisions affecting tribal
members, the burden of proving that an exception to that policy ought to be made in a particular case rests on
the party urging that an exception be made. The rule is reflected in subsection (d).
C.4. Tribal Court Declination of Transfer
a. A tribal court to which transfer is requested may decline to accept such transfer.
b. Upon receipt of a transfer petition the state court shall notify the tribal court in writing of the
proposed transfer. The notice shall state how long the tribal court has to make its decision. The
tribal court shall have at least twenty days from the receipt of notice of a proposed transfer to
decide whether to decline the transfer. The tribal court may inform the state court of its decision to
decline either orally or in writing.
c. Parties shall file with the tribal court any arguments they wish to make either for or against tribal
declination of transfer. Such arguments shall be made orally in open court or in written pleadings
that are served on all other parties.
d. If the case is transferred the state court shall provide the tribal court with all available information
on the case.
The previous version of this section provided that the state court should presume the tribal court has declined to
accept jurisdiction unless it hears otherwise. The comments on this issue were divided. This section has been
revised to require the tribal court to decline the transfer affirmatively if it does not wish to take the case. This
approach is in keeping with the apparent intent of Congress. The language in the Act providing that transfers
are "subject to declination by the tribal court" indicates that affirmative action by the tribal court is required to
decline a transfer.
A new paragraph has been added recommending that the parties assist the tribal court in making its decision on
declination by giving the tribal court their views on the matter.
Transfers ought to be arranged as simply as possible consistent with due process. Transfer procedures are a
good subject for tribal-state agreements under 25 U.S.C. § 1919.
A. Adjudication of Involuntary Placements, Adoptions, or Terminations or Terminations of Parental Rights
D.1. Access to Reports
Each party to a foster care placement or termination of parental rights proceeding under State law involving an
Indian child has the right to examine all reports or other documents filed with the court upon which any
decision with respect to such action may be based. No decision of the court shall be based on any report or
other document not filed with the court.
The first sentence merely restates the statutory language verbatim. The second sentence makes explicit the
implicit assumption of Congress - that the court will limit its considerations to those documents and reports that
have been filed with the court.
D.2. Efforts To Alleviate Need To Remove Child From Parents or Indian Custodians
Any party petitioning a state court for foster care placement or termination of parental rights to an Indian child
must demonstrate to the court that prior to the commencement of the proceeding active efforts have been made
to alleviate the need to remove the Indian child from his or her parents or Indian custodians. These efforts shall
take into account the prevailing social and cultural conditions and way of life of the Indian child’s tribe. They
shall also involve and use the available resources of the extended family, the tribe, Indian social service agencies
and individual Indian care givers.
This section elaborates on the meaning of "breakup of the Indian family" as used in the Act. "Family breakup"
is sometimes used as a synonym for divorce. In the context of the statue, however, it is clear that Congress
meant a situation in which the family is unable or unwilling to raise the child in a manner that is not likely to
endanger the child’s emotional or physical health.
This section also recommends that the petitioner take into account the culture of the Indian child’s tribe and use
the resources of the child’s extended family and tribe in attempting to help the family function successfully as a
home for the child. The term "individual Indian care givers" refers to medicine men and other individual tribal
members who may have developed special skills that can be used to help the child’s family succeed.
One commenter recommended that detailed procedures and criteria be established in order to determine
whether family support efforts had been adequate. Establishing such procedures and requirements would
involve the court in second-guessing the professional judgment of social service agencies. The Act does not
contemplate such a role for the courts and they generally lack the expertise to make such judgments.
D.3. Standards of Evidence
a. The court may not issue an order effecting a foster care placement of an Indian child unless clear
and convincing evidence is presented, including the testimony of one or more qualified expert
witnesses, demonstrating that the child/s continued custody with the child’s parents or Indian
custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.
b. The court may not order a termination of parental rights unless the court’s order is supported by
evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, including the testimony of one or more qualified expert
witnesses, that continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in
serious emotional or physical damage to the child.
c. Evidence that only shows the existence of community or family poverty, crowded or inadequate
housing, alcohol abuse, or nonconforming social behavior does not constitute clear and convincing
evidence that continued custody is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the
child. To be clear and convincing, the evidence must show the existence of particular conditions in
the home that are likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the particular child
who is the subject of the proceeding. The evidence must show the casual relationship between the
conditions that exist and the damage that is likely to result.
The first two paragraphs are essentially restatement of the statutory language. By imposing these standards,
Congress has changed the rules of law of many states with respect to the placement of Indian children. A child
may not be removed simply because there is someone else willing to raise the child who is likely to do a better
job or that it would be "in the best interests of the child" for him or her to live with someone else. Neither can a
placement or termination of parental rights be ordered simply based on a determination that the parents or
custodians are "unfit parents." It must be shown that it is shown that it is dangerous for the child to remain with
his or her present custodians. Evidence of that must be "clear and convincing" for placements and "beyond a
reasonable doubt" for terminations.
The legislative history of the Act makes it pervasively clear that Congress attributes many unwarranted
removals of Indian children to cultural bias on the part of the courts and social workers making the decisions. In
many cases children were removed merely because the family did not conform to the decision-maker’s
stereotype of what a proper family should be-without any testing of the implicit assumption that only a family
that conformed to that stereotype could successfully raise children. Subsection (c) makes it clear that mere nonconformance
with such stereotypes or the existence of other behavior or conditions that are considered bad
does not justify a placement or termination under the standards imposed by Congress. The focus must be on
whether the particular conditions are likely to cause serious damage.
D.4. Qualified Expert Witnesses
a. Removal of an Indian child from his or her family must be based on competent testimony from one
or more experts qualified to speak specifically to the issue of whether continued custody by the
parents or Indian custodians is likely to result in serious physical or emotional damage to the child.
b. Persons with the following characteristics are most likely to meet the requirements for a qualified
expert witness for purposes of Indian child custody proceedings:
(i) A member of the Indian child’s tribe who is recognized by the tribal
community as knowledgeable in tribal customs as they pertain to family
organization and childrearing practices.
i. Any expert witness having substantial experience in the delivery of child and family
services to Indians, and extensive knowledge of prevailing social and cultural
standards and childrearing practices within the Indian child’s tribe.
i. A professional person having substantial education and experience in the area of his
or her specialty.
a. The court or any party may request the assistance of the Indian child’s tribe or the Bureau of Indian
Affairs agency serving the Indian child’s tribe in locating persons qualified to serve as expert
The first subsection is intended to point out that the issue on which qualified expert testimony is required is the
question of whether or not serious damage to the child is likely to occur if the child is not removed. Basically
two questions are involved. First, is it likely that the conduct of the parents will result in serious physical or
emotional harm to the child? Second, if such conduct will likely cause such harm, can the parents be persuaded
to modify their conduct?
The party presenting an expert witness must demonstrate that the witness is qualified by reason of educational
background and prior experience to make judgments on those questions that are substantially more reliable
than judgments that would be made by non-experts.
The second subsection makes clear that knowledge of tribal culture and childrearing practices will frequently be
very valuable to the court. Determining the likelihood of future harm frequently involves predicting future
behavior – which is influenced to a large degree by culture. Specific behavior patterns will often need to be
placed in the context of the total culture to determine whether they are likely to cause serious emotional harm.
Indian tribes and Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel frequently know persons who are knowledgeable
concerning the customs and cultures of the tribes they serve. Their assistance is available in helping to locate
A. Voluntary Proceedings
E.1. Execution of Consent
To be valid, consent to a voluntary termination of parental rights or adoption must be executed in writing and
recorded before a judge or magistrate of a court of competent jurisdiction. A certificate of the court must
accompany any consent and must certify that the terms and consequences of the consent were explained in
detail and in the language of the parent or Indian custodian, if English is not the primary language, and were
fully understood by the parent or Indian custodian. Execution of consent need not be in open court where
confidentiality is requested or indicated.
This section provides that consent may be executed before either a judge or magistrate. The addition of
magistrates was made in response to a suggestion from Alaska where magistrates are found in most small
communities but "judges" are more widely scattered. The term "judge" as used in the statute is not a term of art
and can certainly be construed to include judicial officers who are called magistrates in some states. The
statement that consent need not be in open court where confidentiality is desired or indicated was taken directly
from the House Report on the Act. A recommendation that the guideline list the consequences of consent that
must be described to the parent or custodian has not been adopted because the consequences can vary widely
depending on the nature of the proceeding, state law and the particular facts of individual cases.
E.2. Content of Consent Document
a. The consent document shall contain the name and birthday of the Indian child, the name of the
Indian child’s tribe, any identifying number or other indication of the child’s membership in the
tribe, if any, and the name and address of the consenting parent or Indian custodian.
b. A consent to foster care placement shall contain, in addition to the information specified in (a), the
name and address of the person or entity by or through who the placement was arranged, if any, or
the name and address of the prospective foster parents, if known at the time.
c. A consent to termination of parental rights or adoption shall contain, in addition to the information
specified in (a), the name and address of the person or entity by or through whom any preadoptive
or adoptive placement has been or is to be arranged.
This section specifies the basic information about the placement or termination to which the parent or Indian
custodian is consenting to assure that consent is knowing and also to document what took place.
E.3. Withdrawal of Consent to Placement
Where a parent or Indian custodian has consented to a foster care placement under state law, such consent may
be withdrawn at any time by filing, in the court where consent was executed and filed, an instrument executed
by the parent or Indian custodian. When a parent or Indian custodian withdraws consent to foster care
placement, the child shall as soon as is practicable be returned to that parent or Indian custodian.
This section specifies that withdrawal of consent shall be filed in the same court where the consent document
itself was executed.
E.4. Withdrawal of Consent to Adoption
A consent to termination of parental rights or adoption may be withdrawn by the parent at any time prior to
entry of a by filing in the court where the consent is filed an
instrument executed under oath by the parent stipulating his or her intention to withdraw such consent. The
clerk of the court where the withdrawal of consent is filed shall promptly notify the party by or through whom
any preadoptive or adoptive placement has been arranged of such filing and that party shall insure the return of
the child to the parent as soon as practicable.
final decree of voluntary termination or adoption
This provision recommends that the clerk of the court be responsible for notifying the family with whom the
child has been placed that consent has been withdrawn. The court’s involvement frequently may be necessary
since the biological parents are often not told who the adoptive parents are.
F.1. Adoptive Placements
a. In any adoptive placement of an Indian child under state law preference must be given (in the order
listed below) absent good cause to the contrary, to placement of the child with:
a. A member of the Indian child’s extended family;
i. Other members of the Indian child’s tribe; or
ii. Other Indian families, including families of single parents.
a. The Indian child’s tribe may establish a different order of preference by resolution. That order of
preference must be followed so long as placement is the least restrictive setting appropriate to the
b. Unless a consenting parent evidences a desire for anonymity, the court or agency shall notify the
child’s extended family and the Indian child’s tribe that their members will be given preference in
the adoption decision.
This section makes clear that preference shall be given in the order listed in the Act. The Act clearly recognizes
the role of the child’s extended family in helping to raise children. The extended family should be looked to
first when it becomes necessary to remove the child from the custody of his or her parents. Because of
differences in culture among tribes, placement within the same tribe is preferable.
This section also provides that single parent families shall be considered for placements. The legislative history
of the Act makes it clear that Congress intended custody decisions to be made based on a consideration of the
present or potential custodian’s ability to provide the necessary care, supervision and support for the child rather
than on preconceived notions of proper family composition.
The third subsection recommends that the court or agenda make an active effort to find out if there are families
entitled to preference who would be willing to adopt the child. This provision recognizes, however, that the
consenting parent’s request for anonymity takes precedence over efforts to find a home consistent with the
F.2. Foster Care or Preadoptive Placements
In any foster care or preadoptive placement of an Indian child:
a. The child must be placed in the least restrictive setting which
a. (i) most approximates a family;
b. (ii) in which his or her special needs may be met; and
(iii) which is in reasonable proximity to his or her home
a. Preference must be given in the following order, absent good cause to the contrary, to placement
(i) A member of the Indian child’s extended family;
(ii) A foster home, licensed, approved or specified by the Indian child’s tribe,
whether on or off the reservation;
(iii) An Indian foster home licensed or approved by an authorized non-Indian
licensing authority; or
(iv) An institution for children approved by an Indian tribe or operated by an
Indian organization which has a program suitable to met the child’s needs.
b. The Indian child’s tribe may establish a different order of preference by resolution, and that order
of preference shall be followed so long as the criteria enumerated in subsection (a) are met.
This guideline simply restates the provision of the Act.
F.3. Good Cause To Modify Preferences
a. For purposes of foster care, preadoptive or adoptive placement, a determination of good cause not
to follow the order of preference set out above shall be based on one or more of the following
a. The request of the biological parents or the child when the child is of sufficient age.
(ii) The extraordinary physical or emotional needs of the child as established by
testimony of a qualified expert witness.
(iii) The unavailability of suitable families for placement after a diligent search
has been completed for families meeting the preference criteria.
a. The burden of establishing the existence of good cause not to follow the order of preferences
established in subsection (b) shall be on the party urging that the preferences not be followed.
The Act indicates that the court is to give preference to confidentiality requests by parents in making
placements. Paragraph (I) is intended to permit parents to ask that the order of preference not be followed
because it would prejudice confidentiality or for other reasons. The wishes of an older child are important in
making an effective placement.
In a few cases a child may need highly specialized treatment services that are unavailable in the community
where the families who meet the preference criteria live. Paragraph (ii) recommends that such considerations be
considered as good cause to the contrary.
Paragraph (iii) recommends that a diligent attempt to find a suitable family meeting the preference criteria be
made before consideration of a non-preference placement be considered. A diligent attempt to find a suitable
family includes at a minimum, contact with the child’s tribal social service program, a search of all county or
state listings of available Indian homes and contact with nationally known Indian programs with available
Since Congress has established a clear preference for placements within the tribal culture, it is recommended in
subsection (b) that the party urging an exception be made be required to bear the burden of proving an
exception is necessary.
A. Post-Trial Rights
G.1. Petition To Vacate Adoption
a. Within two years after a final decree of adoption of any Indian child by a state court, or within any
longer period of time permitted by the law of the state, a parent who executed a consent to
termination of parental rights or adoption of that child may petition the court in which the final
adoption decree was entered to vacate the decree and revoke the consent on the grounds that such
content was obtained by fraud or duress.
b. Upon the filing of such petition, the court shall give notice to all parties to the adoption proceedings
and shall proceed to hold a hearing on the petition. Where the court finds that the parent’s consent
was obtained through fraud or duress, it must vacate the decree of adoption and order the consent
revoked and order the child returned to the parent.
This section recommends that the petition to vacate an adoption be brought in the same court in which the
decree was entered, since that court clearly has jurisdiction, and witnesses on the issue of fraud or duress are
most likely to be within its jurisdiction.
G.2. Adult Adoptee Rights
a. Upon application by an Indian individual who has reached the age 18 who was the subject of an
adoptive placement, the court which entered the final decree must inform such individual of the
tribal affiliations, if any of the individual’s biological parents and provide such other information
necessary to protect any rights flowing from the individual’s tribal relationship.
b. The section applies regardless of whether or not the original adoption was subject to the provision
of the Act.
c. Where state law prohibits revelation of the identity of the biological parent, assistance of the
Bureau of Indian Affairs shall be sought where necessary to help an adoptee who is eligible for
membership in a tribe establish that right without breaching the confidentiality of the record.
Subsection (b) makes clear that adoptions completed prior to May 7, 1979, are covered by this provision. The
Act states that most portions of Title I do not "affect a proceeding under State law" initiated or completed prior
to May 7, 1979. Providing information to an adult adoptee, however, cannot be said to affect the proceeding by
which the adoption was ordered.
The legislative history of the Act makes it clear that this Act was not intended to supersede the decision of state
legislatures on whether adult adoptees may be told the names of their biological parents. The intent is simply to
assure the protection of rights deriving from tribal membership. Where a state law prohibits disclosure of the
identity of the biological parents, tribal rights can be protected by asking the BIA to check confidentiality
whether the adult adoptee meets the requirements for membership in an Indian tribe. If the adoptee does meet
those requirements, the BIA can certify that fact to the appropriate tribe.
G.3. Notice of Change in Child’s Status
a. Whenever a final decree of adoption of an Indian child has been vacated or set aside, or the
adoptive parent has voluntarily consented to the termination of his or her parental rights to the
child, or whenever an Indian child is removed from a foster care home or institution for the purpose
of further foster care, preadoptive placement, or adoptive placement, notice by the court or an
agency authorized by the court shall be given to the child’s biological parents or prior Indian
custodians. Such notice shall inform the recipient of his or her right to petition for return of custody
of the child.
b. A parent or Indian custodian may waive his or her right to such notice by executing a written
waiver of notice filed with the court. Such waiver may be revoked at any time by filing with the
court a written notice of revocation, but such revocation would not affect any proceeding which
occurred before the filing of the notice of revocation.
This section provides guidelines to aid courts in applying the provisions of Section 106 of the Act. Section 106
gives legal standing to a biological parent or prior Indian custodian to petition for return of a child in cases of
failed adoptions or changes in placement in situations where there has been a termination of parental rights.
Section 106(b) provides the whenever an Indian child is removed from a foster care home or institution for the
purpose of further foster care, preadoptive placement, or adoptive placement, such placement is to be in
accordance with the provisions of the Act – which requires notice to the biological parents.
The Act is silent on the question of whether a parent or Indian custodian can waive the right to further notice.
Obviously, there will be cases in which the biological parents will prefer not to receive notice once their
parental rights have been relinquished or terminated. This section provides for such waivers but, because the
Act establishes an absolute right to participate in any future proceedings and to petition the court for return of
the child, the waiver is revocable.
G.4. Maintenance of Records
The state shall establish a single location where all records of every foster care, preadoptive placement and
adoptive placement of Indian children by courts of that state will be available within seven days of a request by
an Indian child’s tribe or the Secretary. The records shall contain, at a minimum, the petition or complaint, all
substantive orders entered in the proceeding, and the complete record of the placement determination.
This section of the guidelines provides a procedure for implementing the provisions of 25 U.S. C. § 1915(e).
This section has been modified from the previous version which required that all records be maintained in a
single location within the state. As revised this section provides only that the records be retrievable by a single
office that would make them available to the requester within seven days of a request. For some states
(especially Alaska) centralization of the records themselves would create major administrative burdens. So long
as the records can be promptly made available at a single location, the intent of this section that the records be
readily available will be satisfied.
Forrest J. Gerrard,
Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs
November 16, 1979.
For more information on public policy issues,
contact NICWA staff member David Simmons
by e-mail or by phone
at (503) 222-4044 ext. 19