GRIC's Judicial System Becomes Model for Other Tribes

Emma Hughes

Gila River Indian News


In a historic moment for tribal cooperation, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) partnered with the Gila River Indian Community Court to share information and provide training for new and current employees working in the judicial and child welfare field.


The event was held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 15 at the District 3 Multipurpose building in Sacaton.


NCJFCJ is the oldest judicial membership organization in the country, providing all judges, courts, and related agencies involved with juvenile, family, and domestic violence cases with the knowledge and skills to improve the lives of the families and children who seek justice.


The Community Court serves roughly 20,000 GRIC members and has a staff of 58. The chief judge and five aassociate judges are elected into office by the people of the Community and serve three-year terms. Two Children’s Court judges are appointed by the Tribal Council and serve four-year terms.


Nearly all GRIC judges are enrolled Community members, which was important to the NCJFCJ.


“That's not very normal in Indian country—they’re usually non-natives” who don’t live on or come from the communities they serve, said Christina Andrews (Hia-Ced O’odham ), site manager  for the NCJFCJ. “But GRIC has a really good judicial system to model.”


Andrews oversees tribal courts across the United States, including on the Gila River Indian Community.


 "The judges decided that they really wanted to train the new people here,” she said. “We all came together. We've been planning this for maybe three months now. It started small, and it's now grown to include all the attorneys, judges and leadership.” Andrews added, “What we’re learning from here hopefully will be replicated for other tribes across the United States.”


Office of the General Counsel, Children’s Court, Tribal Social Services, and Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, were among those present for the training and provided overviews of their departments and services.


Much of the training focused on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and how it’s been implanted into GRIC and the overall growing concern over its future. NCJFC Judge Bill Thorne provided the history of the ICWA.


In 1978, the United States Congress enacted ICWA to address the forced removal policies and practices that resulted in separation of nearly 35 percent of Indian children from their families and communities and their placement with non-Indian foster and adoptive homes.


ICWA governs state child-custody proceedings in multiple ways, including recognizing Tribal jurisdiction over decisions for their Indian children, establishing minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families, establishing preferences for placement of Indian children with extended family or other Tribal families, and instituting protections to ensure that birth parents’ voluntary relinquishments of their children are truly voluntary.


For decades, ICWA has provided the gold standard on child welfare practices. But ICWA is now under threat because the Haaland vs. Brackeen federal suit seeks to overturn ICWA on the grounds of racial discrimination.


“If we look at the United States Supreme Court with Roe vs. Wade, how they overturned it, there's this fear in Indian country that ICWA may be overturned as well, which would then overturn us as a political entity,” said Andrews.


She added, “I think it's empowering, because Gila River is indigenizing ICWA. They're saying there's a lot of good things in ICWA,” including allowing Native children to remain in their culture and with their families.


Children’s Court Judge Antoinette Enos and Tribal Social Services Christina Lopez presented on ICWA in the Community, active efforts, perspectives between tribes and state, and possible outcomes of the Haaland vs. Brackeen case. 


Nola Taken Alive, who serves as an at-large member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, participated in the training along with two of her fellow tribal members. She worked in the field of child welfare and served as a youth substance abuse counselor until she was elected. “We can't really have a government unless we are taking care of our children and we're looking generations down the road,” Taken Alive said, “We have to ensure that our children are taken care of.”


Director for Child Protection Services for the Standing Rock Tribe Rachel Thompson said they received a tribal court improvement grant and attended to see what other tribes are doing. They were able to meet with GRIC judges prior to the training and toured the Community’s judicial court building and operations. 

“It's amazing to listen to the judges, and how they go through their court systems, and how they're working with our families, and how they're coming down to the levels of the parent and just saying, ‘What can we do to help you?’” Thompson said. “That, to me, is amazing. This is the first time I've ever seen any court do that before.”


Thompson and Taken Alive also discussed staffing issues and lack of funding available within their own tribe.


She added, “I found it inspiring, and I'm glad that GRIC has a good governor who is actually in attendance and understands the importance of supporting our children and taking care of our children; protecting our children and our families.”