LANSING, Mich. — State Sens. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, jointly introduced legislation to ensure Native American children can benefit from guardianship assistance on an equal basis, and to support more children being permanently placed with guardians instead of temporary foster care.
The Guardianship Assistance Program provides financial support for families who provide permanent guardianship for children when adoption or family reunification are not appropriate options. Senate Bills 137, sponsored by Damoose, and 138, sponsored by Irwin, would make more Michigan families eligible for the Guardianship Assistance Program — without regard to which court orders a child’s guardianship. Currently, children with guardianship orders from tribal courts or out-of-state courts do not qualify for this assistance.
“I joined hands across the aisle with Senator Irwin to respect the authority of tribal courts,” said Damoose. “Currently, when a state court orders guardianship, families are eligible for the Guardianship Assistance Program, but the same is not true for tribal courts with their tribal citizens. I’m glad to sponsor this legislation to make it possible for more kids to remain with family members and to align policy with what matters: the best interests of children.”
Irwin agreed and said these bills are a great opportunity to right a wrong and put the focus on what is best for the children.
“These bills will fix a fundamentally unfair situation in which the state can provide support for a child to be placed in foster care with strangers but cannot provide that same amount to a guardian within their own community or extended family,” Irwin said.
Austin Lowes, chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said these bills will benefit families all over the state.
“We know of at least 10 Sault Tribe families and many other Native families from around the state who have been impacted by the current laws on Guardianship Assistance Program benefits because their cases involve a tribal court rather than a state court,” said Lowes. “When this happens, children have to remain in unfamiliar foster homes rather than in the home of a close relative, and those foster families may not uphold tribal cultures or customs.”
The United Tribes of Michigan, which works on behalf of Michigan’s federally recognized tribes, also supports the bills.
“Guardianship is greatly needed, as it most closely resembles and honors our traditional practices, while ensuring legal protections for our children,” said Jamie Stuck, president of the United Tribes of Michigan. “This amended language, which would allow for all of the 12 federally recognized Tribal Courts in Michigan to be eligible to access the Guardianship Assistance Program funds, will serve all of Michigan’s children today, as well as our next seven generations.”
Stuck continued, “The tribes and the state have recognized each other’s sovereign status by the implementation of conforming laws for the protection of minors, such as the Michigan Indian Child Welfare Protection Act. The Guardian Assistance Program amendments continue this laudable process of mutual recognition of tribal protection court orders and state guardianship processes to offer seamless protection of children across jurisdictional borders of the tribe and the state, while at the same time, recognizing the legitimate independent interests of each tribal sovereign and the state.”
Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, also expressed support for the bills.
“The Bay Mills Indian Community fully approves the amendments to the Guardianship Assistance Program as a means to provide support and equity to tribal families and children,” Gravelle said. “Over the last several decades at Bay Mills, we have had multiple children who have not been able to participate in the Guardianship Assistance Program but desire guardianships to preserve the established familial relationship with their parents. By enacting this language, both the state of Michigan and tribal nations will strengthen services provided in guardianships so that we can better serve our children and our families across the Great Lakes.”
Whether or not a prospective guardian is eligible for guardianship assistance does not have any legal effect on a court’s guardianship order. However, as a practical matter, many families cannot afford to step into the guardianship role without the assistance payments, so children are often placed in foster care instead. Because guardianship assistance amounts are pegged to foster care rates, making more prospective guardians eligible for guardianship assistance will not have a large fiscal impact.
Guardianship, as a permanent option — which often takes place within the child’s extended family — usually provides a more secure placement that keeps children better connected to their communities.
The bills have been referred to the Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety.