In 1999, in an effort to increase the State of Maine’s compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians (HBMI) began to establish a collaborative working relationship with the State. This relationship was marked by the State accepting responsibility for non-compliance, the Band asserting their inherent rights of sovereignty, and by the State and HBMI committing to improving the outcome for Maliseet children in State child welfare custody. At the heart of this inter-governmental relationship is the formal tribal-state child welfare agreement that was signed at a historic ceremony held on the Maliseet reservation on September 16, 2002.
As a result of this ongoing collaboration, the number of Maliseet children who are placed outside of the Band has decreased dramatically and cultural education and preservation efforts for these children have increased. In fact, the overall case child welfare caseload has dropped from over 32 in the late 1990’s to just 15 so far in 2008. Despite the relatively low number of cases, the Band wished to remain vigilant in addressing family issues that could potentially lead to a future increase in child welfare cases. The development of a tribal court that holistically addresses the issues encompassing child welfare in a culturally appropriate manner is viewed as an important piece in that effort.
Why a Tribal Court?
With an established and proven inter-governmental relationship that is providing child welfare hearings and adequate services, why would the Band want to develop their own Court? In short, because the court will be a Maliseet court; A Court developed for the Maliseet based on Maliseet laws, traditions and culture with no outside interference by the State or other non-Maliseet agencies. As a recognized sovereign self-governing nation HBMI has the inherent and legal right to develop their own laws and to establish Maliseet institutions to enforce those laws.
There is clear long-term research showing how tribally developed and run institutions out-perform and are more cost effective than all other non-tribal institutions that have historically worked on tribal issues.* The development of a HBMI Court is seen as a more effective and holistic way to address the issues that surround Maliseet child welfare cases. Regardless of how effective the current inter-governmental arrangement may be, HBMI believes that a Maliseet Court can do better. It is the intent of the Court to provide the most comprehensive and culturally appropriate services available to any Maliseet family in need.
Several community meetings have already played an important role in the development of the Court. Future community meetings will be held in the upcoming meetings to inform the community of development activities and to provide community members with the opportunity to voice their opinions about the direction of the Court and to offer their suggestions for future development. After all, this is a Maliseet Court.
The Court hopes to begin hearing cases late in 2009.
Although the Court has only been actively developing for a little more than two months, court development activities have been on-going for the last several years. Several important and major accomplishments have already been achieved. These achievements include:
Chief Judge – After graduating from Franklin Pierce Law Center, Sarah E. LeClaire, Esq. spent the next fifteen years working for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc. in their Presque Isle office. For the past twelve years she has continued her work with the people of Aroostook County through her own private law firm in Presque Isle, Maine. Her dedication and devotion to supplying a wide array of legal services to low income inhabitants of the County has earned her several noteworthy awards and honors including the John Minor Wisdom Award in 1998. The award is only given to five recipients nationwide per year by the American Bar Association for outstanding Public Service and Professionalism in the practice of law.
Court Administrator – Stephen Brimley has worked on community development related issues for more than fifteen years. Building upon his experiences of working for both of Harvard University’s Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Mr. Brimley has run his own consulting business for the last five years. The consulting business has provided a wide array of services to private, local, state, tribal and federal institutions throughout the United States in a wide array of disciplines including criminal justice, law, policy, economic development, education and community health. Mr. Brimley is also a Research Fellow with the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance & Citizenship at Syracuse University College of Law and a Policy Associate with the Native Nations Institute located at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona.
The Court and the staff can be reached by:
Telephone: 207-532-4273 Ext. 217
Mail: HBMI Tribal Court
88 Bell Road
Littleton, Maine 04730
For example, see the research of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development: www.ksg.harvard.edu/hpaied .