Tribes call for Utah legislators to pass bill to protect Native children

Jan 31, 2023, 8:14 PM | Updated: 9:01 pm
Representatives from Utah tribes show support for HB40, a bill patterned after the federal Indian C...
Representatives from Utah tribes show support for HB40, a bill patterned after the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News)
(Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Tribal leaders from around the state gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to call on Utah legislators to pass HB40, Utah’s version of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which they say protects Native American children from unnecessary removal from their families and tribes.

“Am I wrong to think that the representatives for Utah represent all of us, all of our people?” said Corrina Bow, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah chairwoman. “To table HB40 on a minor technicality — knowing that this bill is so important to all of our eight sovereign nations of Utah — is an injustice.”

The Utah House Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 to hold HB40 in committee last week, with chairman Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, saying the bill would be added to a future agenda.

Hawkins told KSL.com on Tuesday that the committee won’t hear the bill this week. He said there are “a lot of issues” with the bill but declined to discuss specifics. “I want the committee to feel comfortable before they vote on it,” he said.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart called on the committee to add HB40 to its agenda for this Friday and said there is still time for the committee to do so.

Heart lost a younger brother to substance abuse after he was removed from his family and placed in foster care at a young age. He said although the foster family supported his brother, Heart and his family always wondered about the child they had lost.

“He got lost in the system — and when he did, he passed away at a young age,” Heart said. “We don’t want this for our children, to get lost in the system. We want them to identify themselves.”

The Heart family’s experience is all too common for Native families, statistics show. Prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, the federal government found that Native children were systemically removed from their families and tribes — often without evidence of abuse or neglect that would be considered grounds for removal. Studies show that about one-third of all Native children were removed prior to the act’s passage, with 85% being placed outside their families and communities even when fit and willing relatives were available.

“Am I wrong to think that the representatives for Utah represent all of us, all of our people? To table HB40 on a minor technicality — knowing that this bill is so important to all of our eight sovereign nations of Utah — is an injustice.” —Corrina Bow, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah

Tribal leaders pointed to the fact that Native families today are still four times more likely to have their children removed and placed into foster care, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, as a reason why the act is still necessary. HB40 comes as the Indian Child Welfare Act faces a Supreme Court challenge. Utah would join a growing number of states passing state-level protections for Native children.

Navajo President Buu Nygren and Council Delegate Carl Slater stressed that HB40 would not be anything different than what the state has already been doing under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

“This is not a racial issue. I think you might recognize I’m a few shades different on the color wheel than a lot of my colleagues over here,” said Slater, who is half-Navajo, half-Jewish. “It’s a nation-to-nation, a state-to-state relationship affirmed in our Constitution. It’s not an equal protection issue. I’m a citizen of the Navajo Nation; our babies are citizens of the Navajo Nation.”

“You have an opportunity to make sure they know who they are and that they’re protected and that they will live long and beautiful lives,” Slater said tearfully. “So I ask the members of the Legislature to move this bill on to protect our kids, to help respect the sovereignty and affirm the right of the state to make its own laws and be that protector of our kids.”

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, the bill’s sponsor, said she is continuing efforts to pass HB40.

“We ran into a little bit of a hiccup, but we have lots of people trying to educate committee members so that they will support this,” Watkins said. “I just hope we can get it across the finish line. There are a lot of people in the background working on this.”

HB40 has wide support, including Utah’s eight federally recognized Native American tribes, Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes as well as Utah policy, legal and foster care groups and the state’s Native American Legislative Liaison Committee, which voted unanimously to introduce legislation during this session.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued the following statement in light of the stalled effort to pass HB40:

“Utahns believe in the fundamental importance of strong families and communities. For that reason, codifying ICWA is in the state’s interest and aligns with our values. At its core, ICWA keeps Native American children with Native American families and recognizes the Constitutional sovereignty of Utah’s eight federally recognized tribal nations.”

Navajo Council Delegate Rick Nez, a boarding school survivor, appealed to the Legislature’s religious values in his call to pass HB40.

“There is a scripture that says, ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.’ It is not that there is a lack of knowledge. We as Native people would like to share and take this knowledge and give it to our children,” he said. “Today, we ask the leadership of the great state of Utah — please ring your bell of love to protect the Native children. God bless each and every one.”

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Tribes call for Utah legislators to pass bill to protect Native children