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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill would set guidelines for foster care placement of Native American kids

A bill to establish a state-level Indian Child Welfare Act in Montana was introduced this week This bill would build on a federal version of the policy.

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act, referred to as ICWA, guides the removal and placement of Native American children in cases of abuse and neglect, prioritizing their placement into the homes of family members or other members of their tribe.

“If you look at the handout you will see the marked decrease in the rates of native children in state custody after the implementation of a statewide ICWA,” Kelly Driscoll, a public defender practicing family defense in Missoula County’s ICWA court, said.

If passed, Montana would join 10 other states with local-level ICWA policies, which expand guidelines for child placement.

According to data from the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the number of Native American children in foster care is nearly three times higher than their proportion in the overall population.

Lance Four Star, a staffer with the Montana American Indian Caucus, spoke in support of the bill.

“Regardless of ICWA, House Bill 317 ensures Montana steps up to what’s in the best interest of Indian children,” he said.

Lawmakers are considering a local policy to define the process for placing native children in foster care as the federal ICWA is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Proponents of the bill said establishing a Montana version of the policy would maintain these protections for tribes in Montana and preserve tribal sovereignty, if the national policy is struck down.

Over 30 people spoke in support of the bill during its hearing, and it has support from every tribe in Montana.

One opponent spoke against the bill, citing a technicality in the bill’s language.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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