Supreme Court Supports Indigenous Child Adoption Preference
Ruling Upheld to Protect Native American Families
The conservative Supreme Court of the United States has delivered a resounding endorsement to the American Indian tribes. By a seven-to-two majority vote, the justices have upheld a federal law that has been in place for over four decades, ensuring that Native American families or tribes are given preference in the adoption of indigenous children. The court unequivocally rejected claims made by Republican activists and white families that the law is discriminatory and racist.
Enacted in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was designed to safeguard tribal sovereignty. Recognizing the high number of Native American children being separated from their families and placed for adoption by individuals of different backgrounds or in state-run institutions, Congress implemented this protective measure. Throughout history, hundreds of thousands of these minors have been forcibly removed from their own families with the aim of erasing their cultural identity and assimilating them into white families. ICWA is supported by tribes as a means of preserving their heritage and families in the face of centuries of colonization.
The law specifies that, if adoption becomes necessary, the child is to remain with close relatives. If that is not possible, another tribe member will assume care. Only if no suitable alternatives are available will the child be placed with another Native American family.
Background of the Supreme Court Case
The legal case that led to the Supreme Court’s decision originated in 2016. The Brackeens, a wealthy white Texas couple with strong religious beliefs, adopted a child who was less than one year old. The child, born to a Navajo mother and Cherokee father, had previously been in foster care within the state system, and the adoption was approved by both the biological relatives and the tribes.
In 2018, a Texas judge deemed the federal law unconstitutional on the grounds of racial discrimination. In the same year, the child’s biological mother gave birth to another baby, a girl. The Brackeens sought custody of the girl, but the tribes recommended that she be under the care of her great-aunt residing on a reservation. Ultimately, a state judge’s decision allowed shared custody between the two parties, with the girl spending her summers with her biological family on the reservation.
Unsatisfied with the verdict, both parties appealed the decision. In addition to the claim that the law may be discriminatory—for example, not applying to a Latino child adopted by a white family—the Brackeens and other families involved in the lawsuit argued that Congress did not possess the authority to pass such a rule. The Indian tribes and the Biden administration contended that the distinctions were based on political reasons, as tribes are recognized as political entities rather than ethnic ones.
Supreme Court Ruling and Reactions
In their decision, the Supreme Court judges acknowledged the complexity of the matter. However, they firmly rejected the arguments against the law put forth by the petitioners. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, writing on behalf of the seven justices who sided with the tribes, stated, “Primarily, we reject the petitioners’ arguments against the law.” The two dissenting voices in the majority opinion were conservatives Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Tribal leaders have expressed their satisfaction with the court’s ruling. “The court has once again shown that it understands the legitimacy of the ICWA and what it means for tribes, families, and children,” stated chiefs from the Cherokee, Oneida, Quinault, and Morongo tribes in a joint statement.
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