Butte County sees upsurge in Indian Child Welfare Act cases

BELLE FOURCHE — Butte County State’s Attorney Cassie Wendt presented to the Butte County Commission during its March 21 meeting, delineating to the commission the county’s rise in Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) cases and the added expense the county has shouldered in recent months.

The ICWA is a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. Congress passed ICWA in 1978 in response to the alarmingly high number of American Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies.

“In a child abuse case where there is a connection to an Indian tribe … ICWA says that we should give all consideration to the child’s culture, heritage, and their tribe,” Wendt said.  

Wendt told the commission, in an effort to remain compliant with the federal regulations, her office contracts a professional who performs an investigation into how the state’s attorney’s office handled the case and testifies to his/her findings.

The expert, Wendt said, is tasked with verifying that the department followed through with contacting the tribe; that the tribe had the right to intervene and didn’t; that all the cultural necessities that were available have been looked at; and that there is no tribal placements available.

“So, I have to have somebody take the stand and say, ‘I’m an expert in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (for example), and I understand the child-rearing process as a Native American, and here’s what they are,’” Wendt told the commission. “And then to have that individual explain that they’ve reviewed everything that the department has done; that they agree with everything that the department has done; and that they agree with the placement. And then they talk about the termination of parental rights — if that is what we’re doing — and how we have complied with the ICWA in the actions that we’ve taken thus far.”

She further explained that in any case involving an American Indian child, this review and testifying process is required to remain compliant with the federal regulations. Wendt said that prior to 2017, three such cases have been processed in the four years that she has worked for the office. However, since the beginning of this year, she has worked and required the services of the expert three times. In each case, the expert services cost the county $1,500.

“When you’re talking about an expert, the number one consideration is, ‘Let’s not leave any holes and have to do this again in six months’ — so you do it, and you do it right,” Wendt said.

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