A recent case from division one, Custody of CCM, gives me the unique opportunity to blog my own case. I represented the appellants in this case. We won.
CCM pitted a non-Indian father against the Indian grandparents. I had the grandparents. Thus, the facts lay in the intersection between two sometimes contradictory statutes: the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act and Washington’s third-party custody statute.
The case raised several issues: 1) Notice to the child’s Indian tribe, 2) Cure for defective notice, 3) The standard for determining where to place the child, and 4) Child support. We won on three of the four issues.
In terms of notice, the court held that ICWA requires that the child’s Indian tribe needs formal notice of any custody proceeding regarding the child. Formal notice means certified mail, return receipt requested, to the proper tribal authority. If the notice is defective in any way, the Tribe gets a new trial.
In terms of the placement standard, in a custody dispute between two parents, the state-law standard is best interest of the child. However, in a custody dispute between a parent and a non-parent, the standard for placing with the non-parent is much higher. The child is placed with the parent unless 1) the parent is unfit or 2) moving the child from the non-parent to the parent would cause the child actual detriment to his health and well-being.
I argued that this standard didn’t apply to the grandparents because they were the Indian custodians. Since ICWA treats parents and Indian custodians the same, the standard should be the same – best interest. I still think it is a good argument, but it lost. The court held that, where federal law – ICWA – treats the parties the same, the standard for which party gets the child is the state law standard.