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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) concerning Tribal Child Welfare Legal and Judicial Issues

What systems of justice govern Tribal communities?

Essentially, unless otherwise provided by federal law, both federal and tribal laws apply to members of a tribe. However, in states that fall under PL 83-280, states have jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed by or against American Indian/Alaska Natives in areas officially designated as “Indian country” within that state.

Taken from Findings from the NRC4Tribes Technical Assistance Needs Assessment found here:

What kinds of courts do Tribal communities use?

Code of Federal Regulations Courts. First modern iteration of tribal courts. They were established by the Department of the Interior in 1883. In part to handle less serious criminal actions and resolve disputes among tribal members. These courts are operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribal Courts. With the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act Indian Tribes were allowed to exercise their inherent sovereignty to establish their own justice codes and operate court systems enforcing those laws.  Today, tribal justice systems are diverse in concept and character. While some are extensively elaborate, others are just beginning to develop a modern judicial system within the context, conditions and circumstances of their individual nations. Some tribes prefer the adversarial process, while others utilize traditional dispute resolution. Many courts apply large bodies of written or positive law and others apply custom and tradition to address controversy and settle disputes.

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Peacemaking Courts. These courts are operated by the tribe and follow the tribe’s customs and traditions in settling disputes among members.

Taken from Findings from the NRC4Tribes Technical Assistance Needs Assessment found here:

See also:


What is Public Law 280?

Public Law 83- 280 (commonly referred to as Public Law 280 or PL 280) was a transfer of legal authority (jurisdiction) from the federal government to state governments which significantly changed the division of legal authority among tribal, federal, and state governments. Congress gave six states (five states initially - California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin; and then Alaska upon statehood) extensive criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands within the affected states (the so-called "mandatory states"). Public Law 280 also permitted the other states to acquire jurisdiction at their option. Public Law 280 has generally brought about:

  • an increased role for state criminal justice systems in "Indian country" (a term which is specifically defined in federal statutes,
  • a virtual elimination of the special federal criminal justice role (and a consequent diminishment of the special relationship between Indian Nations and the federal government),
  • numerous obstacles to individual Nations in their development of tribal criminal justice systems, and
  • an increased and confusing state role in civil related matters. Consequently, Public Law 280 presents a series of important issues and concerns for Indian country crime victims and for those involved in assisting these crime victims.

Public Law 280, however, is a complicated statute which has been very controversial since the time of its enactment in 1953. It has often been misunderstood and misapplied by both federal and state governments. Moreover, the practical impact of Public Law 280 has gone far beyond that which was legally required, intended, and contemplated.

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What is meant by a Sovereign Nation?

Sovereign Nation refers to the legal and government status of a Tribe. Sovereignty refers to the power of people to govern themselves. Tribal Sovereignty, or recognizing a Tribe as a Sovereign Nation, simply means Tribes have, by law, the right to self-governance, as they never surrendered that right to the Federal Government.

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What is a Child Protection Team?

Child Protection Teams (CPTs) in Indian Country vary. Most attempt to be a cooperative effort of community service delivery agencies with the purpose of protecting Indian children and preventing abuse and neglect in the future. In cases where Indian children have been found to be abused or neglected, the CPT seeks to provide protective services to immediately secure the child’s safety and health. Once the safety of the child is secured, the CPT can facilitate the development and implementation of a plan to promote the short - and long-term well - being of the child and the incorporation of appropriate family members in the care of the child. In addition, CPTs are to promote prevention of child abuse and neglect by acting as advocates for services and programs for children and assisting with other agencies to establish a unified response to prevent of child maltreatment.

Child Protection Teams are technical and advisory in nature and are not intended to take the place of any agency in the community that provides services to children. They are designed to promote coordination, cooperation, communication, and consistency among community agencies in the protection of child abuse and neglect in Indian communities and to promote prevention efforts. The essence of a Child Protection Team is to be the network of service providers that is the safety net for any child that may be harmed. In an ideal situation, there can be more than one CPT in a community made up of the same agencies. The first tier CPT would be at the administrative level addressing agency policies and procedures and community/tribal responses, and the second tier CPT would address cases with a focus on direct services to children and follow-up on recommendations and services.

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What is a Multi-Disciplinary Team?

A multidisciplinary team is an interagency investigative team comprised of professionals from the key disciplines involved in investigating and prosecuting child abuse cases in a particular jurisdiction. These professionals are, by written agreement, able to coordinate their work on a particular case sharing all necessary information in order to produce a more thorough and coordinated investigation.

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