This case established the rule that individual Indian tribal members domiciled on the reservation cannot avoid tribal jurisdiction simply by giving birth off the reservation and surrendering the child in state court.
The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) gave tribal courts exclusive jurisdiction over custody proceedings involving Indian children residing or domiciled on the reservation ICWA aimed to stop abusive child welfare practices where many Indian children were being taken from their tribes through adoption or foster care placement.
In Choctaw Indians, the unwed parents were members of the Choctaw Indian Tribe and domiciled on its reservation in Mississippi. The mother gave birth 200 miles away from the reservation because she did not want her infant twins adopted by Indians She and the father immediately consented to adoption in state court. The Choctaw Tribe moved to vacate the adoption, arguing that the tribal court had sole jurisdiction The motion was denied. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the denial, reasoning that the children were never domiciled on reservation territory and the parents had expended effort to keep the children from being placed there.
The US. Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that "domicile," unlike "residence," was established not just by one's physical presence in a place, but also by one's intent to remain there. Because the children were incapable of establishing that intent, their domicile was that of their parents. For children born out of wedlock that meant the mother's domicile. Here, the mother's domicile was the reservation. Moreover, letting individual tribal members avoid tribal court jurisdiction simply by giving birth off the reservation would defeat ICWA's purpose.
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