AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Janet Mills announced Thursday that she has signed on to a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the full enforcement of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

The Indian Child Welfare Act spells out federal standards meant to ensure that the rights of Native American children, their parents and their tribes are fully respected in child custody proceedings, according to a press release from Mills. It requires that a parent who is a tribal member be given strong preference for custody and requires that in an adoption, placement of an Indian child whose parents have given up their rights must be prioritized to the child’s extended family or other Indian families.

The case before the U.S. Supreme Court involves a baby born in Oklahoma to a father who is a member of the Cherokee nation. The non-Indian mother, who was not married to the father, put the child up for adoption and the child was placed with a non-Indian family and moved to South Carolina. The Supreme Court in that state eventually ruled that a lower court had violated the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“The facts of the South Carolina case are particularly outrageous because the father of this Indian child was in the military and he was first notified about the proposed adoption of his child only four days before he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq,” said Mills. “The state of Maine, the Wabanaki people, and potential adoptive parents should know what the federal law requires and should know that the law will be applied evenly.”

Rep. Wayne Mitchell, who represents Maine’s Penobscot Nation in the Legislature, said the state’s tribes are fully behind the attorney general’s action because it will help them ensure their culture.

“If the ICWA in any way is watered down or its impact that it has in preserving the tribe’s sovereignty and its culture, then it will have an impact on the tribes in Maine,” said Mitchell during a press conference Thursday at the State House.

Mills said she had no hesitation in signing onto the Supreme Court’s amicus brief, which has also been supported by at least 11 other state attorneys general. She said Maine has adhered to the act since 1978 and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is involved with events that happened even before that.

“Anecdotally, tribal children were pulled from their families without consideration of tribal interests,” said Mills. “It’s my hope and expectation that every member of [the Maine Department of Health and Human Services] and the court system will respect the principles and language of the Indian Child Welfare Act whenever child custody issues are brought to their attention.”

Mills said she expects the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the South Carolina case in late April.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.