FAMILY LAW / NATIVE LAW
Matter of April S.
In the Matter of April S., 467 P.3d 1091 (Alaska, 2020), the supreme court ruled that an out-of-state mental health professional qualified as an expert under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), given the severity of the child’s psychiatric conditions. The ICWA requires state agencies to present testimony from a “qualified expert witness” before placing a Native child in foster care. (Id at 1097). Binding federal regulation states that, with few exceptions, a qualified witness should have knowledge of the child’s tribal culture. (Id at 1097–98). Here, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) moved April, a seventeen-year-old Native Alaskan girl in its custody, to an inpatient psychiatric facility in Utah, where a staff member hurt her already-broken arm. (Id. at 1093). At a subsequent hearing, a mental health counselor from the Utah facility testified that it was too dangerous to discharge April, but admitted she knew nothing about Alaska Native culture. (Id. at 1094–94). On the basis of this testimony, the trial court declined to return April to her mother. (Id. at 1096). April appealed, arguing that the Utah-based witness lacked necessary knowledge of her Native culture. (Id.). The supreme court disagreed, holding that Native culture was irrelevant to April’s psychiatric diagnoses. (Id. at 1099). Justices Winfree and Carney were concerned that OCS provided no evidence of how April’s Native community addresses juvenile mental health. (Id. at 1100 (Winfree, J., concurring)). They observed that, under the ICWA, the burden is on OCS to prove that cultural knowledge is irrelevant in a particular case. (Id.). Accordingly, the court ruled that an out-of-state mental health professional qualified as an expert under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), given the severity of the child’s psychiatric conditions.