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Bills would ensure guardianship cases in tribal court are eligible for state assistance

Joe Gratz

Right now, people who become a child’s legal guardian aren’t eligible for state assistance if their case is in a Michigan tribal court.

Two bills in the state legislature would change that. They would extend the financial benefits of the Guardianship Assistance Program to all legal guardians, regardless of what court handles their case.

Jocelyn Fabry, chief judge for the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said the current law leaves many tribal court judges reluctant to finalize guardianship cases and deny families assistance. But that comes with a cost — legal cases in limbo and in some cases, longer-than-necessary stays in the foster care system.

“For those families — for those kids still having to meet with the caseworkers, still having their case come to court — the uncertainty that comes with that is really significant,” Fabry said.

Fabry said she has 13 such cases in her court right now, out of around 100 statewide. “So while the overall number of families affected is not huge, for each of those individual families, it's a significant impact,” she said.

“I think this legislation really embodies sort of the progress that we're making in government-to-government relationships between the states and the sovereign tribes. It really recognizes that all our children are one and the same.”

Senate Bills 137 and 138 have passed the state Senate, and are now before a state House committee.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.