Governor, AFN say new adoption rules a step toward stronger ties

The Walker administration won praise Thursday for issuing new regulations designed to ease requirements for relatives and tribal members seeking to adopt Alaska Native foster children, even as the attorney general refused to request a rehearing in a related Alaska Supreme Court case, a move sought by several Native organizations.

Gov. Bill Walker said the new emergency regulations, as well as proposed changes to a law submitted to the Legislature on Wednesday, represent a first step in efforts to settle differences between tribes and the state that have often been battled in court.

"This is a first step, it's a necessary step. When you start doing something for the children you know you are on the right path as far as I'm concerned," he told reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday.

The effort is meant to help correct the discrepancy in the large numbers of Native children in state foster care -- more than 1,500 today -- and the small percentage of Native children adopted into Native homes. "We didn't want a situation where a child doesn't have an opportunity to be adopted and grow up in a culture that is their heritage," said Walker.

Tribes and the state have locked horns for years over matters related to such things as tribal recognition, subsistence rights and adoptions.

Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state's largest Native organization, flew to Juneau for the press event and stood by Walker's side. She said it was "awesome" that the administration pursued a way forward outside the courtroom.

"I'm so proud of our efforts today. It's real, it impacts children in our state today," she said.

Though Alaska Natives are about 20 percent of the state population, they make up almost two-thirds of the state's foster children.

AFN requested the governor issue emergency regulations and worked with the administration to hammer them out.

State officials say the new regulations will help ensure that relatives, tribal members and Native families can receive preference under the Indian Child Welfare Act when a child in state custody is up for adoption. The U.S. Supreme Court and state Supreme Court have said those adoptive placement preferences do not apply unless the Native person has formally sought to adopt the child.

Typically, families hoping to adopt foster children have hired attorneys to file the necessary paperwork to receive that preference, presenting challenges for many Alaska Natives in remote and cash-poor communities that may have not have easy access to an attorney.

The new emergency regulations provide new ways the formal step can be taken to achieve the ICWA preference. For example, an Alaska Native seeking the preference can notify the department by phone, mail, fax, email or in person, rather than filing the formal adoption petition.

Walker has filed a bill to put the regulations into law and remove other hurdles, including a requirement that an adoption petition must be filed before a child can actually be adopted, officials said. The measure would also streamline the process by allowing a potential adoptive parent to express his or her intention to adopt during a child protection case -- where the state Office of Child Services takes steps to protect children believed to be threatened by guardians or parents -- rather than in a separate adoption hearing.

The emergency regulations will soon be issued for public notice, and all comments will be considered before final regulations are implemented, said a statement from Walker's office.

The proposed legislation will not be passed in the legislative session that ends Sunday, Walker said. The goal is to have the regulations in place now until the proposed changes to law can be fully vetted and approved by the Legislature next session.

The administration's efforts stem from a state Supreme Court decision in September involving a woman from a Southwest Alaska village who wanted to adopt her granddaughter but was unable to do so because the state said she had not met the formal requirements.

The tribal village in Tununak sued the state in 2011.

The tribe lost the case, and AFN and several other Native groups in recent months have urged the state to request a rehearing in the case.

The attorney general's office filed paperwork with the court on Wednesday saying there are no grounds for a rehearing. But the filing also noted that the state is taking measures to address the concerns.

For example, OCS is considering partnering with tribes and "shifting internal resources" to better identify potential new adoptive parents in Native communities.

Kitka said AFN stands ready to continue working with the state on other issues. It's about creating "a win-win situation," she said, rather than fighting things out continually in court.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.