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In re Adoption of B.B., 2020 UT 52 (July 28, 2020)

Jul 28, 2020

This is the second appeal from the adoption proceedings involving a child whose unmarried biological parents are members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.  The Utah Supreme Court reversed the district court’s grant of motions filed by the biological father and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to transfer the case to the tribal court under section 1911(a) of the Indian Child Welfare Act.  The Court held the district court erred in determining the child was “domiciled within the reservation” at the time the action was filed on both of the proffered bases—that the birth mother was domiciled on the reservation and the birth mother had “abandoned” the child, transferring the child’s domicile to the biological father.   Because the district court appeared to apply the wrong standard in determining the birth mother’s domicile, the Court did not grant deference to the district court’s determination.  Reviewing the evidence in the record, the Court held the birth mother was domiciled in Utah (where she lived at the time the action was filed) because the evidence indicated that when she moved to Utah—the relevant point in time for the domicile inquiry—she intended to remain permanently.  This was true even though her plans appeared to change shortly after she arrived in Utah; “the crucial time of relevance to domicile” was “when [the birth mother] initially left the reservation and moved to Utah,” ¶ 15.  Turning to the second basis relied on by the district court, the Court held that under the Restatement and Utah law, the birth mother’s “relinquishment of custody and signing away of parental rights in the formal adoption context does not amount to an ‘abandonment’ because it is not done with the ‘intention of relinquishing . . . parental rights and obligations’ immediately or unconditionally,” ¶ 25.  The Court additionally rejected the notion that ICWA’s jurisdictional scheme “prevents any Indian parent from evading exclusive tribal jurisdiction—even if she is no longer domiciled on the reservation—so long as the other Indian parent remains a domiciliary of the reservation,” ¶ 39.  Justice Himonas issued a dissent, explaining he would have held the birth mother abandoned the child, who then took on the domicile of the biological father, which was the reservation.