Bringing Michigan into compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act

By Lori Atherton
U-M Law

The Hon. Allie Greenleaf Maldonado, chief judge of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) Tribal Court, has been on a mission since she joined the Tribal Government in 2002: to bring the State of Michigan into compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Judge Maldonado’s mission is personal; her mother, a member of the LTBB, was removed from her Tribe as a young child after the death of her mother. Instead of being placed with a relative or another member of her Tribe, Judge Maldonado’s mother was forced to become a domestic worker for a Mennonite minister and his wife. She was made to cut her hair, couldn’t speak her language or practice her religion, and wasn’t allowed any contact with her Tribe.

The minister and his family “made my mother feel ashamed to be Native American, and they made her lie about her heritage and tell people she was Armenian,” Judge Maldano says. “She grew up very isolated, which impacted her deeply.”

ICWA, a federal law, was passed in 1978 to prevent the removal of Native American children from their families and tribes, but many states, including Michigan, weren’t complying with it or were misusing it, Judge Maldonado says. When she became the assistant general counsel for the LTBB in September 2002, “my goal was to put Michigan into compliance with ICWA, and being a new lawyer, I was going to sue them into it.” Judge Maldonado put to use the training she gained as an honors attorney with the Department of Justice’s Indian Resources Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and successfully litigated the first case in which the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the termination of parental rights due to a failure by the state to follow ICWA.

Though she was elated that she won the case, “it didn’t take long to figure out that I wasn’t changing the system,” says Judge Maldonado, who became chief judge of her Tribe in 2012. “My focus shifted, and in the exact moment that I decided it was important to change the system, the right people happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Judge Maldonado met with Ismael Ahmed, then director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services, who asked how his department could better assist the LTBB and other tribes. “I spoke up and said that the manual their social workers use is out of compliance with ICWA. ‘You’re basically telling your social workers to break the law,’” Judge Maldonado says. Ahmed promised that the manual would be updated and created a working group tasked with rewriting it. “I’ll never forget the day it went live,” Judge Maldonado says. “I sat at my desk and kept hitting refresh, because I thought it would disappear.”

Next came an opportunity for Judge Maldonado and others to work with the State Court Administrative Office to write a bench book for Michigan judges explaining how ICWA works. She also helped to rewrite the Michigan court rule enforcing ICWA, as well as assisted in rewriting court forms used throughout the state.

In addition, she was among 70 lawyers who helped to draft the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA), which was passed in 2013 and provides additional standards and procedures for cases involving Indian children. “One of the proudest days of my life was standing behind Governor Snyder as he signed MIFPA into law,” Judge Maldonado says.

Her efforts in helping to bring Michigan and other states into compliance with ICWA over the past 15 years have garnered Judge Maldonado numerous accolades, including the Unsung Hero Award from the State Bar of Michigan, the Woman of the Year designation from Michigan Lawyers Weekly, and the Michiganian of the Year award from The Detroit News. She also was honored in 2016 as a Woman Inspiring Change by Harvard Law School, a designation she shared with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others.

“The awards are nice, but my work is not mine alone,” Judge Maldonado says. “I have not accomplished things in isolation. My Tribe has supported me 100 percent, and I’m grateful and lucky that I’m part of a movement and that I’ve worked with so many smart, caring, and talented people. It’s the state of Michigan and the people here that are amazing.”

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