Judge Katherine Delgado
(Sheridan, Wyo) On June 26th, The Dally ran an article about the Indian Child Welfare Act. Specifically, the article reported that a group had traveled through Sheridan County to conduct research for a special court docket planned in Denver County, Colorado. The trip took them to the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux, and Rosebud Sioux tribal reservations. Since then, the Dally has had the chance to discuss the Indian Child Welfare Act court docket with 17th Judicial District Judge Katherine Delgado.
Delgado is the chair of the Judicial Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) committee in Adams County, Colorado. In January, Judge Donna Schmalberger, District Court Judge for the Denver Juvenile Court, partnered with Sheldon Spotted Elk of the Northern Cheyenne, the Director of Indian Child Welfare at Casey Family Programs in Denver. Spotted Elk enlisted people and made contacts on reservations and they received authorization from the ICWA committee for funding for a trip to learn more about how ICWA functions from a tribal perspective.
As the chair, Judge Delgado voted yes and she was invited to accompany the team. She liked the idea of the special docket and wanted to do the same thing in Adams County. She knew she couldn’t bring as many people from Adams County or do a separate trip, so she chose a few people to accompany her: Simone Jones, Court Programs Coordinator at 17th Judicial District Courts and Katherine Gregg, Assistant County Attorney and ICWA specialist. Gregg was particularly excited about the idea of creating an ICWA docket and asked Judge Delgado, “Can we just start it as soon as we get back?”
It wasn’t that simple, but they have been working hard and their first docket starts on September 5th. Attorneys to represent parents were selected last week. They have a volunteer GAL (Guardian Ad Litem). One of the attorneys who was on the trip and was on the ICWA subcommittee is in the approval process to be a GAL. Delgado is excited because the attorney is a Native American, and she believes he will be a strong cultural-rights advocate.
Jones said of the trip, “I didn’t now what to expect. I used to teach on reservations, sometimes in Wyoming. There are similar threads through the different tribes, one of them being that children are the number-one focus, but otherwise they all function like separate countries with different languages, courts and governments. Those of us who work in the juvenile courts get impatient when the tribes don’t get back to us, but on this trip I learned that they are very under-resourced and overwhelmed in regards to ICWA. It gave me a different perspective. We got what we intended and so much more.”
Judge Delgado says she,
“…had a prior meeting with tribe leaders and judges about seven years ago. I flew to visit with the Navajo and Southern Ute. It was a magical experience that breathed life into ICWA. At the time it was just a set of guidelines, but after that first road trip to the four corners it became more important to me to follow the law as chair of the ICWA Committee. It was an introduction to learning about different tribes. They were all high functioning and highly educated. I was impressed with how committed they were to their languages and cultural continuity. It gave me a much better perspective.
We depend on communication from the tribes for us to be able to comply with ICWA. I am passionate about judges complying. If you look at Colorado’s record, it has done very poorly. In terms of complying with ICWA, we have a letter grade of ‘F’. I am embarrassed. The judicial office should do a better job with findings and resources designed to address culture and reunite families. This is really important.
As a person of color (I’m not Native American, but I’m Latina) I understand culture and how important it is to children and families that cultural traditions be maintained. We don’t do a good job for families of color. Too often, children are placed in homes with people that don’t look like them and their culture is swept away. I want to do a better job with this. And after this trip, I’m raring to go. I’ve scheduled hearings and asked all kinds of different questions. We will be attending all of Judge Schmalberger’s annual IWCA training sessions. I can’t take all the juvenile judges on a road trip, but I’m trying to get everyone on-board.
There can be a lot of impatience. I’m hoping judges in Wyoming will read this. Every tribe I have talked to, we’re the first state court judges to take interest in their work, their people, and their culture, when people in their own state haven’t even taken an interest.
If you’ve had to work with ICWA cases, you’ve had the experience where you leave a message and never hear back, or you hold a hearing and the tribe is told they will be called at 8:30, but it’s not really until 10:00 and it’s rude to assume that they’ll just sit around for hours waiting. I think we need to at least text or email, ‘Hey, we’re running late’. At the Oglala Sioux Reservation at Pine Ridge, there was a table stacked high with notices that had come in for ICWA cases. They had just had one computer donated. Previously, they were working through everything manually. They have extremely limited resources. It was just eye opening to see that table, but one thing that was apparent was how much value children have in Indian culture.”
Jones added, “They are getting notices to participate in hearings all around the country and typically each tribe has only one ICWA person. So you just end up with these random situations across the country.”
“I’m just in awe of native culture, just how simple and beautiful their traditions are, with values about life. We get caught up in the day to day craziness and forget the simple things that we should all focus on,” Judge Delgado said. “We had a judge and a storyteller go on the trip just to talk to us about Wounded Knee. That’s the heart and spirit of ICWA. It’s not enough to understand the wording of the law, we need to understand why we need to comply.”