Mother Convicted In Death of One Child Can’t Retain Parental Rights To Others Just Because of Belated Indian Status Claim, Court Says

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A woman who had seven children with five different fathers and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of one of them can’t get parental rights back to her two youngest just because she now claims they are American Indians, a Massachusetts court has ruled.

Shaniqua Leonard, of Whitman, who according to court papers identified as black in her interactions with social workers, on May 31 pleaded guilty to manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Lyric Farrell, who suffered head trauma in December 2019 that led to her death.

Leonard, who was 29 at the time of her guilty pleas in May, was sentenced to three to four years in state prison, with credit for nearly 1.8 years already served at the time, plus five years of probation after that.

Leonard has lost parental rights to her children, including the youngest two, who are twins.

She appealed the parental rights decision, arguing that a family court trial judge did not adequately investigate whether the twins qualified for special status under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which is designed to make it harder for the government to separate Indian families.


Special Status For American Indian Parents

Removing children from their parents is a matter for state courts following state standards in the United States, except when it comes to children whose mother or father is a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe.

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 and a federal rule stemming from it issued by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs establish minimum federal standards for such cases. The Indian tribe must be notified and its tribal court takes jurisdiction over such cases unless a parent objects to it, the tribal court declines, or a court finds “good cause” to deny the transfer.

The federal statute and regulation also establish a higher burden to remove children than what state courts typically use — a “clear-and-convincing” standard for placing children in foster care over the wishes of their parents and a “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard for terminating parental rights. The federal statute and regulation also establish a preference for placing Indian children with family members or with another family of the tribe.

In October 2018, a federal district court judge in Texas struck down the federal statute as unconstitutional, saying the act impermissibly creates a racial preference and wrongly requires state courts to enforce purely federal standards.

In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court in Haaland v. Brackeen upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act as constitutional by a 7-2 margin, arguing that Congress has full power under the federal constitution “to legislate with respect to the Indian tribes.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Thomas decried what he called the act’s “patent intrusion into the normal domain of state government and clear departure from the Federal Government’s enumerated powers.”


Parents Say They’re Not Indians?  Not Good Enough

Natalie Hoppel, a lawyer representing the mother, told the state Appeals Court earlier this year that just because a parent denies belonging to an Indian tribe that doesn’t mean state officials and state judges should accept that answer as correct.

“Giving too much credit to a parent’s denial of their Native American heritage undermines the tribe’s sovereign ability and full authority, if you will, to determine who is a tribal member, and does not align with the purpose of ICWA,” Hoppel said during oral arguments on September 6, 2023, referring to the Indian Child Welfare Act. “ICWA’s statutory framework, regulations, guidelines are intended to address the common-sense understanding that over time Indian families, particularly those living in major urban areas such as Boston or Brockton, may well have lost the ability to convey accurate information regarding their tribal status. Reliance on mother or father’s denial of their Native American heritage to uphold the lower court’s decision ignores the reality that the parents may not know the details of their possible relationships with or connections to Indian tribes.”

Like the mother, the father of the twins identifies as black, and according to court papers, he expressed concern at one point that the twins may not be raised by a black family.

Justice Gregory Massing asked what evidence the mother’s lawyer has that the children are American Indians. Hoppel noted that there isn’t much in the record of the case, but that she has found evidence for it in the so-called Dawes Rolls in the National Archives, which has lists of people accepted by the federal government between 1898 and 1914 as being members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes.

Hoppel argued that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families should have searched the Dawes Rolls and should have interviewed family members on both the mother’s and father’s sides to determine possible Indian heritage.

Hoppel also argued that the record in the case is mixed – according to court papers, three social work intake reports from December 2019 include the notation that six of the mother’s seven children qualify for Indian Child Welfare Act status.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court didn’t buy her argument.

“The mother never brought this information to the trial judge’s attention, and the trial judge cannot be faulted for failing to search through every page of the voluminous record to find a needle in the haystack,” the Appeals Court said in its decision this week.

The Appeals Court also upheld the juvenile court judge’s decision not to grant the mother visitation rights.

“In declining to order visitation with the mother, the judge considered that the twins were exposed to significant trauma while in the mother’s care; that they had not had contact with the mother since [their toddler sister’s] death; that the mother was unable to control her anger and behavior in the community or at trial; and that the twins, who had spent most of their lives in foster care, required stable home environments. The judge found that the twins ‘do not have a strong bond’ with the mother and a visitation order ‘would be detrimental to [their] best interests.’  We discern no abuse of discretion,” the Appeals Court said.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is one level below the state’s top court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

What happened to the twins after their mother went to jail?

A lawyer told the Appeals Court that the twins initially went to foster care, but later were placed with their father’s mother, who lives in Rhode Island.

“They’re living together. They are happy, at least from my observations,” said Daniel Katz, a lawyer representing the twins, during oral arguments in September.

The case is called Adoption of Ursa. (The name is a pseudonym.)  The Massachusetts Appeals Court decided the case on Wednesday, November 29, 2023.


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