Supreme Court Releases Opinion on 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act

June 15, 2023
justice scale

The issues are complicated … But the bottom line is that we reject all of petitioners’ challenges to the statute …

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority opinion of the Court – which on Thursday upheld a law which works to keep Native American children with Native families if they are placed for adoption.

Context: The law upheld – the Indian Child Welfare Act – was established in 1978 by Congress "out of concern that 'an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies,'" Justice Barrett notes, explaining that Congress had found many of these children were placed with non-Indian families. Barrett writes, "As Congress put it, 'there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.'"

The New York Times reports, "Typically in child welfare cases, a judge is charged with determining the best interest of the child. Under the act, however, Native American children are subject to different rules, in part to safeguard their tribal ties. The law lays out priorities for adoption before a child can be placed with a non-Native family."

The petitioners in this case included a Texas couple who adopted a Native American boy "after a prolonged legal fight with the Navajo Nation," The AP explains; the couple is now trying to adopt the boy's half-sister, who has been with the family since infancy. The Navajo Nation challenged this adoption, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. The TX couple argued the Indian Child Welfare Act "violated equal protection principles and discriminated against Native children and non-Native families who wanted to adopt them because it hinges on placement based on race" (NYT).

Why It Matters: In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the petitioner's arguments and upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act, affirming the right of Native American families and tribes to have preference in the adoptions of Native American children.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: "The first line in the Court’s opinion identifies what is most important about these cases: they are 'about children who are among the most vulnerable.' … But after that opening nod, the Court loses sight of this overriding concern and decides one question after another in a way that disserves the rights and interests of these children and their parents, as well as our Constitution’s division of federal and state authority."

Read the opinion of the Supreme Court HERE

Supreme Court Upholds Native American Adoption Law

by Jenna Lee,