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National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges: So Much More Than One Meeting…One Person…One Time

Nancy Miller, Director, Permanency Planning for Children Department

Summary: A Tribal Leadership Group is informing NCJFCJ’s efforts in areas that will ultimately improve systems serving Native children.


In partnership with Casey Family Programs, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is working with tribal representatives, judges and other experts to convene a Tribal Leadership Group to guide NCJFCJ in several priority areas. The group will advise the council on issues including: how best to improve state court compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); how to build capacity in tribal courts and tribal social service systems to implement a system improvement model; how to advance recommendations made by the council and the National Indian Child Welfare Association; and how to effect meaningful tribal involvement in the council’s new Multi-Court Collaboration Project.

The Tribal Leadership Group will be drawn from tribal judges, state court judges who are tribal members, NCJFCJ judicial leadership and other tribal and judicial experts. The planning group—comprising NCJFCJ and Casey leaders who are either tribal members or heavily engaged in tribal work—has stressed the importance of a fresh and respectful approach to our ongoing work with tribes. The planning group has been very clear that a “business as usual” approach will not be effective in true and meaningful tribal engagement. Approaching tribes respectfully, seeking to learn, and honoring the long history of intergenerational trauma suffered by Indian people are but a few of the driving principles of the council’s work. Several of NCJFCJ’s major initiatives have pointed to the need for continuous tribal input to help guide the way.

On a national level, for over two years, the NCJFCJ’s Permanency Planning for Children Department (PPCD) has been working to support model courts’ efforts to reduce disproportionate representation and disparate treatment of children and families of color in the child welfare system. Through the Courts Catalyzing Change initiative, supported by Casey Family Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the PPCD and model court lead judges are building relationships in tribal communities across the country.

On an individual state level, with strong support from the Oregon Court Improvement Project, the Tribal Leadership Group’s efforts to improve state court compliance with ICWA will focus on Oregon’s statewide efforts to reduce disproportionality and disparate treatment. The governor and chief justice have committed to this reduction work with strong support from the legislative branch. The cross-branch partnerships and priorities developed in Oregon and the state’s implementation of statewide model courts provide fertile ground for this work. In addition, Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, the Oregon Judicial Department and the Oregon Department of Human Services worked together for two years to develop Active Efforts Principles and Expectations, a shared understanding of the importance and process of making active efforts determinations in ICWA cases. This document will serve as a foundation for the work in Oregon.

In yet another initiative, NCJFCJ, in partnership with the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), published a brief in 2009 entitled Court Reform: Improving Outcomes for American Indian and Alaskan Native Children. The document outlined recommendations for action on the state and federal levels. The Tribal Leadership Group will be asked to help NCJFCJ move those recommendations forward to truly effect system change.

Also, as a partner in the National Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues (RCLJI) with the American Bar Association, and the National Center for State Courts, NCJFCJ will be working closely with tribes in cooperation with other national resource centers to provide technical assistance and support. The center hopes to support Court Improvement Projects as they, too, implement the Courts Catalyzing Change initiative in their respective states. NCJFCJ, as a RCLJI partner, is sponsoring two tribal offerings at the Court Improvement Project national gathering in July, including a workshop on intergenerational trauma and a keynote address on meaningful tribal engagement. NCJFCJ will engage the Tribal Leadership Group to develop a selection of further topics and speakers on these important issues.

Last and most recent, informed by the important work of the Gila River Indian Community, the Tribal Leadership Group will advise NCJFCJ how to assist tribes to further develop tribal court capacity to effect systems change by implementing the NCJFCJ model court model in a way that is respectful of tribal communities. The Tribal Leadership Group will also be asked to focus beyond child abuse and neglect cases and support the council’s soon-to-be-launched Multi-Court Collaboration (MCC) project.

The MCC is focused on a “no wrong door” approach that seeks to coordinate services for children and families regardless of the “door” through which they enter the courthouse. Coordinating dependency, delinquency, domestic violence and family law cases will be the initial focus of the project, although we have high hopes of including criminal and other civil cases as well as the project moves forward. The MCC initiative is projected to launch late in the fall of 2010 after a planning process that can be informed by the Tribal Leadership Group, among many others.

The NCJFCJ is deeply committed to its work with Native American and Alaskan Native communities and looks forward to the exciting opportunity to build on our efforts with the wise advice of the Tribal Leadership Group.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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