Judge’s ruling allows tribal courts to supervise adoptions

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 3-08

A federal judge is ordering the state of Alaska to allow tribal courts to supervise adoptions.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess during February issued a decision that also gives tribal courts more say in other child welfare matters.

The decisions are at odds with Governor Palin’s administration, which more closely follows that of her predecessor, former Gov. Frank Murkowski. His attorney general, Gregg Renkes, issued an opinion in October 2004 withdrawing state approval for tribal adoptions unless tribal courts apply for special permission, which few have done.

The Feb. 22 decision, along with a similar recent decision in state court, would return the state to a more cooperative tribal policy established under former Gov. Tony Knowles.

The Knowles administration approved birth certificates and other state records for several hundred children adopted by order of village tribes.

Since then, about 50 tribal adoptions per year have been left in limbo, said Natalie Landreth, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage. Burgess ruled in a case involving the Yukon River village of Kaltag.

That case involved a 1-year-old girl taken from her mother, a tribal member, in 2000 because the tribal council was concerned about the girl’s well-being. The tribe approved adoption by the girl’s foster parents in 2005, but the state refused to grant a birth certificate reflecting the girl’s new name.

The state sent Kaltag a packet of information describing steps the tribe could take to win state recognition. Instead, the tribe sued.

So far, Palin in court has defended the Murkowski position. However, her office has had no response in recent days to questions about an appeal.

The governor has yet to make a clear public statement about her position on the authority of tribes in Alaska. In the past, state officials have often been reluctant to cede sovereignty to tribes, but as a practical matter tribes may provide the only effective governance in rural parts of the state.

Along with tribal gaming, tribal authority over Native children is one of the few unresolved legal questions surrounding the powers of Alaska tribes.