New Gila River Indian Community Model Court Effects Systems Changes and Improvements

Gina Jackson, MSW, Model Court Liaison, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Summary: The Gila River Indian Community is a tribal model court jurisdiction that is utilizing the cultural strengths of the tribe in new initiatives for child welfare system improvement and system change.


Gila River Indian Community Model Court was developed through the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Permanency Planning for Children Department in 2009. The Gila River Indian Community consists of two tribes: the Pima (Akimel O’odham) and the Maricopa (Pee-Posh). The tribe’s land base is larger than the Phoenix area, and the tribe has 20,000 members. The community’s main court is located in Sacaton, AZ, with a second court office located in the west end of the Gila River Indian community.

The cultural history of the people living in the Gila River Valley is one of collaboration. The people were known for their remarkable engineering skills, using the river to sustain rich farming communities throughout the valley. The individual communities worked together on projects benefiting the larger community. The people also helped thousands of settlers who passed through the area during the California gold rush. The river, which sustained life, eventually was diverted by settlements, canals and mining. The abundant farming lifestyle of the people slowly diminished. They fought for more than a century to regain their water rights. In 2004, the largest Indian water settlement in the history of North America was won, marking a new day for the Gila River Indian Community and revival of connection to the old ways of life the river brought.

Judge Kami Hart has taken on the model court leadership with a vision of improving an already well-functioning court system. Judge Hart is a graduate of Harvard University and a Gila River Indian Community tribal member. Children’s Court Judge Jay Pedro, a Gila River Indian Community member as well, has been with the tribal court for the past 19 years, earning trust in the community and providing stability in the court.

The court is moving forward in system improvement and system change through collaboration by all of the stakeholders in their child welfare system. The model court is focusing on three goals in 2010: developing a tribal Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program; looking at family group decision making (FGDM) models to adapt to reflect the tribe’s culture; and implementing the Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases through a tribal lens.

In April 2010, the Gila River Model Court was awarded a planning grant by the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association to develop a tribal CASA program that will reflect the culture and practices of the Gila River Indian Community. They now have funding to move forward as they design a program utilizing their community members as volunteer advocates to represent the child’s voice in court.

The model court has been examining models of family group decision making that may be adapted to reflect the cultural strengths of the Gila River Indian Community. In June, international speaker Mike Doolan came from New Zealand to speak to the tribal child welfare community, including elders and youth stakeholders, sharing the FGDM approach. Doolan was instrumental in the implementation of FGDM, a model based on Maori practice in the New Zealand child welfare system. A strategy was laid out that began with talking with the elders in the community about what they see as the needs of children and families. The elders are the leaders in the family and are also the primary leaders in the community, other than the leaders of the tribal council, who have been supportive of the model court’s efforts.

The court is working on the implementation of the Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases by meeting regularly to strategically plan how to utilize the guidelines to improve court hearings to create better outcomes for Gila River Indian Community children and families. They are reviewing the Resource Guidelines through a tribal lens and teaching us as we begin to increasingly partner with tribes.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has been working with the Gila River Indian Community Model Court as a partner in tribal child welfare systems improvement. We are learning together to approach tribes as experts in their own tribal systems. This is a different philosophy and approach, as we are not the ones coming as the experts, rather coming to support the tribe’s efforts in a respectful way, helping them find what works best for them.

For more information about the model court program and other court improvement initiatives, please see our website at:



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