Utah Indian Child Welfare Act bill passes committee

Utah Indian Child Welfare Act bill passes committee

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would offer legal protections for Native American children during adoption and foster care processes.

Members of the Utah House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to favorably recommend HB40. The bill would codify state-level protections of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which currently faces a Supreme Court challenge. HB40 now goes to the House for a vote.

The committee vote came nearly four weeks after the committee voted to hold the bill over concerns about aspects of the bill. In the meantime, leaders from the state's eight federally recognized tribes have been outspoken on the importance of passing the bill.

Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, proposed a substitute for the bill that he said addressed lawmakers' concerns, while also protecting tribes' interests. Changes in his substitution included moving the effective date of the bill forward to avoid a gap in protections if a Supreme Court ruling overturns the federal act, and addressing how the state will handle Native children who are tribal members but live outside a reservation.

Several people spoke in support of the bill and urged lawmakers to listen to tribes, and some shared personal experiences of the legacy of the forced removal of Native American children from their families before the federal act was passed in 1978.

In fact, approximately 80% of Native families living on reservations lost at least one child to the foster care system before the act. That amounted to about a third of all Native children being removed. Of those removed, 85% were placed outside their families and communities even when fit and willing relatives were available.

Taylor Throne, a policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children, voiced the organization's support for the bill as well as her personal support as a member of the Navajo Nation.

"Out of at least four generations, I'm the first that was entirely raised by my parents, which is really sad," Throne said. "My mother, grandfather and great-grandfather were raised away from their family and culture and they all died very young from self-harm. Experiences like this tear people apart, tear families apart and it has torn my family apart."

Dominque Talahaftewa voiced a similar family experience. Before the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, Talahaftewa's mother and her siblings were removed from their parents.

"Unfortunately, the separation from her family and tribe was the beginning of an assimilation that she endured, and it does trickle down," Talahaftewa said, adding that her mother still longs for a sense of identity and belonging at 68. "She's referred to the displacement into the 'supposed happy home with children' as a house of secrets and abuse. She had nobody to turn to. She didn't have family. She didn't have her tribe or other Native families."

Nina Sampson, a Navajo Nation member who lives in Herriman, also commented about the generational impact of forced separation on Native families.

"I reside in Utah because my mother was displaced from her family home in New Mexico," she said. "With that displacement, I find myself as an individual with a loss of culture, a loss of language and a loss of sense of self. And that is a very dangerous place to be. It's a very lonely place, and it is very difficult. I do know that there are lots of people in my tribe who reside in Utah who are happy to help foster these children. I am one of them. I just strongly urge you to keep these children with their culture and with families like mine."

Lawmakers also expressed their support for the bill.

"If we've erred in the past, we've erred in separating families too quickly. I think that's particularly true when you look at our history when you're talking about Indigenous families," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "So I think this is a great bill."

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