Native child welfare bill draws mixed reaction

2014-01-29T19:00:00Z 2014-01-29T23:55:41Z Native child welfare bill draws mixed reactionBy KEVIN ABOUREZK/Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

As a child, Chris Legband didn’t know she was Ponca.

The adopted daughter of a Lebanese man grew up in Fremont.

At 25, she learned what she had always suspected: A Native woman had given birth to her.

She also learned she had a twin brother and sister who lived less than 100 miles away in Beatrice. She eventually met them and began a journey of self-discovery that landed her in a hearing room at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

“This law seriously fights to ensure that siblings with cultures and families are kept together,” Legband said during a public hearing on a bill (LB928) that would strengthen state laws designed to prevent the easy breakup of Native families.

Currently the tribal affairs director for the Ponca Tribe, Legband formerly worked in child welfare, focused on keeping Ponca families together. She did so with the help of a federal law designed to impede the breakup of Native families.

Enacted by Congress in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act gives preference to Native parents and tribes when considering placement of Native children. It was passed to combat the high number of Native children being removed from their homes.

Nebraska has the third-highest rate of Native children in foster care, said Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, who introduced the Nebraska bill on behalf of the State-Tribal Relations Committee.

While Native children make up 1 percent of all the state’s children, they make up 7 percent of those awaiting adoption and 6 percent of children who’ve been adopted, he said.

“These are alarming statistics,” Coash said.

His bill would require state agencies to reach out to all tribes from which a Native child may be descended when a child who comes from multiple tribes is taken into the state’s custody. It also better defines the kinds of expert witnesses state courts can call to help them decide a Native child’s best interests in regard to his or her tribal customs.

Alicia Henderson, chief deputy Lancaster County attorney, said her office and the Nebraska County Attorneys Association oppose LB928 because it broadens existing federal law. She said only the federal government can enact laws affecting tribes.

“There are many portions of the bill that are susceptible to a constitutional challenge,” she said.

Kelly Tollefsen, a Lincoln attorney who practices child and family law, said she fears the bill would broaden the definition of a Native child to include children whose parents aren’t tribal members but have Native heritage.

“We believe that the expansion would be unconstitutional,” she said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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