The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)* is a complex federal law that applies to abuse, neglect, or dependency (A/N/D); termination of parental rights (TPR); and adoption proceedings. One of the purposes of ICWA is to provide special protections to federally recognized Indian tribes and the tribes’ children and families. See 25 U.S.C. 1901‒1902.
Subject matter jurisdiction between tribal courts and state courts is governed by ICWA when an “Indian child” is the subject of the A/N/D, TPR, or adoption proceeding. When any of the criteria of 25 U.S.C. 1911(a) are met, the tribal court has exclusive subject matter jurisdiction. When that criteria do not exist, ICWA allows for concurrent jurisdiction between state and tribal courts. See 25 U.S.C. 1911(b), (c). The N.C. Court of Appeals (COA) recently published two opinions addressing subject matter jurisdiction under ICWA. In one case, the COA held that the N.C. court had jurisdiction in an adoption proceeding that involved two Indian children. In the other case, the COA remanded for further proceedings in the trial court in part to ensure the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction in the A/N/D action when it was uncertain whether the child was an “Indian child.”
A takeaway from these cases is that the N.C. court is not automatically divested of subject matter jurisdiction when an Indian child is the subject of the proceeding. But, how does the N.C. court know if it has subject matter jurisdiction? Continue Reading