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Utah tribes urge lawmakers to pass bill ensuring protections for native kids

The Utah House of Representatives in session.
Utah House of Representatives

Tribal leaders from the eight federally recognized tribes in Utah gathered at a news conference at the state Capitol this week and called on state lawmakers to pass House Bill 40, Utah's version of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Advocates say the bill would implement provisions to protect Native American children from unnecessary removal from their families and tribes.

Eugenia Charles-Newton, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, said recent research has shown that systematic bias within the child-welfare system means Native families are four times more likely to have their children removed and placed into foster care compared with their counterparts. She said she hopes state lawmakers value family unity when looking at the bill.

"Although progress has been made as a result of ICWA," she said, "out-of-home placement still occurs more frequent for Native American children than it does for the general population."

Despite advancements, Charles-Newton said, protections are still needed. Supporters of the bill have said its protections are warranted as the federally recognized Indian Child Welfare Act faces a Supreme Court challenge. Opponents of the law say it is wrongly based on race and prevents the state from considering a child's best interest.

HB 40 is sponsored by state Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, and state Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Ferron, who are seeking to codify ICWA provisions into state law, meaning Utah could join a list of states passing protections for Native children.

Manuel Hart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said that ss the oldest living residents of the state of Utah, HB 40 reaffirms inherent rights for tribal nations and ensures culture and traditions are passed on to younger generations.

"Lets us give them their right to exercise their inherent right to learn their language, their culture and their traditions," he said. "Let us protect them through ICWA-House Bill 40."

Watkins said the bill is making its way through the state House and added that they've run into a bit of a "hiccup" but are trying to educate committee members to garner more support for the bill so it can make its way to the state Senate.