BILLINGS — A new Yellowstone County treatment program will soon graduate the first class from what is known as the ICWA Family Recovery Court.
Kyle Spang is in the fifth and final phase of the program and is now reunified with her son. Spang is a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and worked with ICWA advocates through her treatment process. ICWA stands for the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
The Yellowstone County ICWA court launched in 2019 and has space for 12 participants at a time.
District Court Judge Rod Souza heads up the intensive treatment court program that is expected to graduate its first class in May.
At the legislature, lawmakers are considering putting the protections of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into Montana law.
The bill, HB 317, remains in committee. Its sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder, says he expects it to pass to the floor.
Congress enacted the ICWA in 1978 to protect Native American children from removal from their tribes to be fostered or adopted by anyone from outside a federally recognized tribe.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case challenging those protections sometime this year after hearing arguments in the Haaland v. Brackeen case this past fall.
Ten other states have already codified the federal requirements into their state laws, due in part because of the history of forced removals of children and assimilation policies in the U.S.
ICWA has stricter requirements for removal than most standard state procedures.
More rules to enforce ICWA came into effect in 2016.
The Montana Supreme Court website cites higher rates of removals of Native children, stating: "Montana’s rate of American Indian children in foster care is 3.7 times as high as the rate of Caucasian children, according to the National Council of Juvenile Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ)."
Yellowstone County hosts one of the first ICWA courts established in the United States.
What makes the court unique is its relationships with the families of its clients.
The ICWA program track falls within the Family Recovery Court, a process where parents who lose their children due to addiction issues can get treatment and get their kids back.
“It was work, it was like a job. It was so much work, but so worth it,” said Spang, who entered the program in October of 2021 in hopes of regaining custody of her son.
Worth it, she said, because Spang was reminded of her worth.
“I don’t have to do these things, I get to do these things, was my attitude with all of that. I got to be the mom that I always was meant to be, and I’m a great person, I’m strong. I get to dream dreams now, and you know make goals and achieve those goals,” she said.
She’s already achieved so much, like getting her youngest son back in her life.
“I felt even more empowered, like I did this, I got this far. That was a reward, a blessing, from all the hard work. That just made me more motivated because I had this little life to take care of that was just with me,” Spang said.
The Indian Child Welfare Act ensured that her son Shad was placed with Spang’s Northern Cheyenne relatives.
“For my son to be with my family and have the cultural component is very important,” she said.
Tribal advocates play an active role in the treatment and reunification process.
“We have these meetings with the tribal ICWA social workers, and it's like a family engagement meeting. You get to be a part of it, and all of them get to hear how your success is doing, everybody’s on the same page,” Spang said.
Spang said her connection to her community meant so much in the recovery process.
“Having the tribal people support me, it just made me proud, because that’s my culture,” she said.
These cultural connections lawmakers are trying to protect at the state legislature through the proposed Montana Indian Child Welfare Act or MICWA.
The measure seeks to put federal code into Montana law and add other programs.
“Like child support, like Title IV-E foster care and all of these other things because this ICWA thing is more than just ICWA. it has a whole different layer of programs that tie into this for the best interest of the child,” Rep. Windy Boy said.
Click here to read a chart prepared by Windy Boy that shows the differences between the proposed state MICWA legislation and federal ICWA and explains why the changes are being proposed.