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County of Los Angeles, Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Courtroom

Amy Pellman

By Hon. Amy Pellman


In June of 2013, I was assigned the ICWA courtroom at the Edelman Children’s Court in Los Angeles. We are one of the only courts across the country that designates a courtroom to hear all the ICWA cases (approximately 250 children); we also have a specialized unit of the Department of Children and Family Services designated for the Indian cases. Although I had spent the bulk of my professional life working in the child welfare area, I knew very little about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Not only did I know very little about the laws, I knew very little about the culture, and within my first two weeks, I inadvertently offended the community when I rearranged the décor in the courtroom. Luckily, I was introduced to a social worker from the Indian Unit, who kindly explained to me the significance and why the community was upset.

I realized at that moment that there needed to be healing between the court and the Indian community. Not just to address that small misunderstanding, but to address communication on a larger scale. I wanted to set up a meeting with community members, service providers for the Indian community, and the attorneys who worked at our court. I was fortunate to utilize the assistance of Vida Castaneda and Ann Gilmour from the Tribal/State Programs Unit at the Judicial Council of California (http://www.courts.ca.gov/programs-tribal.htm) and Tom Lidot and Margaret Orrantia from TribalSTAR, a training academy program based at San Diego State University http://theacademy.sdsu.edu/TribalSTAR/Welcome.htm). We discussed at length creating an ICWA Stakeholders’ Roundtable for Los Angeles County that would be inclusive rather than exclusive. After the first meeting, we decided to break out into smaller subcommittees dedicated to addressing a few of the most important issues. These issues included: improving communication, engagement with local and out of state tribal communities, addressing the lack of Native American foster homes, learning of the resources for Native American families, fostering ICWA compliance, collaborating between tribal and non-tribal communities, improving ICWA education, and increasing trust between the court, child welfare system, and tribal communities. The roundtable has successfully brought together parties who ordinarily had little opportunity to speak directly to one another. Not all conversations have gone smoothly but we endeavored to actively engage in problem-solving to begin to address some of the long-standing issues that have plagued our Los Angeles child welfare system. By allowing the tribal communities to speak, many of us have learned how important it is to listen. Perhaps what has been most exciting has been seeing some of the tribal community’s concerns incorporated into court coordinated community responses.

One example, and a top priority for me, was addressing the lack of Indian foster homes. Despite Los Angeles being the largest urban Native American community in the country, we had not one certified or licensed ICWA compliant foster home. By shining a light on this very important issue, the subcommittee, with the full support of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), created a public service announcement to recruit Native American foster homes that will air on local radio stations, and brochures to encourage Native American families to become foster families, and began recruiting inperson at local Native American community events. Currently, we have five families who are going through the licensing process.

The roundtable has expanded over the past year and we have been honored that tribal elders, ICWA advocates, tribal community leaders, tribal TANF providers parent’s attorneys, children’s attorneys, county counsel, private adoption attorneys, representatives from DCFS, tribal representatives from tribes located outside California, service providers, Los Angeles County juvenile probation representatives, Casey Family Foundation, and a host of others have been in attendance.

Another first was an effort to provide specialized ICWA education to judicial officers and attorneys working at the Edelmans Children’s Court. With over more than 20 courtrooms devoted solely to abuse and neglect cases, organizing training was challenging. With the blessing of the Honorable Michael Nash, a former presiding judge of the Juvenile court, however, we were able to bring together nationwide ICWA experts and conduct a court wide program on December 5, 2014.

My vision was to bring together the ICWA stakeholders in Los Angeles for quarterly meetings to improve relations, increase effective communication, work on collaborative solutions for long standing issues, and provide better outcomes for Native American families. I am pleased that we have successfully established a strong collaboration among equal partners, working together in a culturally respectful way to address issues of mutual concern.

We are also working to establish our own version of a peacemaking project in Los Angeles. With the assistance of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) and the Judicial Council’s Tribal/State Program unit, we are in the process of making this vision a reality.

Creating a roundtable is challenging but, thanks to the great dedication of all the roundtable volunteers, the community has come to a greater understanding of the juvenile dependency system and ICWA and developed momentum to implement innovative solutions.

If you would like additional information on the ICWA Stakeholders’ Roundtable and quarterly meetings, please contact Vida Castaneda at (415).865.7874 or vida.castaneda@jud.ca.gov.

 

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