Montana capitol
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

A House committee Tuesday advanced a bill that would solidify out-of-home placement protections for American Indian children with their tribe onto the House floor for consideration after waiting nearly three weeks for action. 

ICT indian country today
This story also appeared in ICT

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, introduced House Bill 317, that would put the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into Montana law. The significance of this bill and ICWA, Windy Boy explained, is to protect the cultural identity of American Indian children.

“Indian policy in the United States is basically termination policy,” Windy Boy said in an interview with Montana Free Press. “I’m glad that the majority of the committee had seen that and the votes have spoken loud.”

The House Human Services Committee voted 15-6 to pass HB 317 with two amendments. The bill was first introduced and heard in committee earlier this month during a hearing that attracted over 30 proponents. A letter of support from the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus was also introduced.

HB 317, also referred to as the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act, would help codify the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state regulations, ensuring Native children who are in the foster care system or child protective services are placed and cared for by families close to their respective tribe and reservation. 

The bill will still need to pass the full House before progressing to the Senate. Only one individual spoke in opposition during the initial committee hearing, which resulted in an amendment to HB 317. Bruce Spencer, who represents the Montana State Bar, took issue with a section of the bill that would have allowed a representative from the respective tribe who is not an attorney to be involved in custody and court proceedings, something that Spencer said only the Montana Supreme Court had the authority to do.

The section was amended and passed with the bill along with a second amendment that addressed a jurisdiction section that gives tribal entities exclusive authority over the child’s housing placement within the reservation. 

HB 317 is not the only bill addressing the welfare of Native children making its way through the Legislature. Senate Bill 328, introduced by Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, would take parts of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and incorporate them into the existing state neglect and child abuse laws. However, the two bills do not conflict, according to Brooke Baracker-Taylor, who is a part of the Montana State Bar and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who helped draft HB 317.

Windy Boy said in an email that he expects HB 317 to go before the full House during the next several days.

This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.

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