TRIBAL ALERT: Covid-19 Pandemic

CILS is closely monitoring the ever-changing work restrictions and recommendations from public health officials on the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our priority is the protection of our staff, their families, and our clients.

Our Sacramento CILS office is currently subject to mandatory closure, and we anticipate that other CILS offices may soon be under a similar mandatory closure restriction.

CILS has instituted a program-wide policy requesting all CILS staff to work remotely from home and have closed all offices to the public.  We will continue to accept and return calls from new and existing clients. Attorney staff will ensure their clients’ legal interests are protected and keep them updated on any and all information relevant to their case.

CILS is committed to being here for our tribal communities and tribes.  If you have questions, concerns, or need additional information on the status of CILS or the COVID-19 pandemic, please call the CILS office closest to your location or the Principal Office at 760-746-8941. We will return your call as soon as possible.

Thank you for your understanding, and please stay safe.


Protecting Indian Children: The Importance of Culture When Working with Indian Families

By Mica Llerandi, CILS Escondido office Staff Attorney

When I worked as an attorney on my reservation, I was eager to jump into serving my tribal community. My employer, a legal aid program, provided cultural awareness training, but I incorrectly assumed it wasn’t necessary for me. In my mind, this was my reservation, this was the community I grew up in, and I knew what I needed for my job. I quickly realized that I grossly misjudged my abilities and learned that I needed to quickly shed my biases and prejudices to effectively serve my clients.

As service providers, it is easy to overlook our personal biases and prejudices and ignore the importance of cultural humility. This is especially true in the child welfare/dependency context as service providers often encounter families in crisis. Services providers may respond with kneejerk reactions as opposed to meeting the family and trying to understand their needs. These inadvertent reactions often cause the family to distrust the service provider and hurt the chance to develop a healthy relationship with the provider.

In order to effectively serve our Indian families, we need to be aware that our good intentions might ignore our Indian families’ beliefs or values. When exploring how to serve our Indian families better, a great resource to start is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Culture Card. While this culture card is not the final authority in cultural awareness and humility, the guide provides a snapshot of cultural concepts and issues to be aware of when meeting with Indian individuals.

Cultural humility is especially important in child welfare because cultural supports may be what the Indian family needs. By ignoring the value of culture or incorrectly assuming the Indian family does not want or already have cultural support, service providers risk leaving a hole in the family’s support network. Without this support, the child welfare system can easily fail our Indian families. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to establish minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children and to combat the removals occurring due to the misunderstanding of Indian cultural child-rearing practices.

In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) examined the implementation of the ICWA and determined that states implemented the ICWA inconsistently. An area of need was in providing “active efforts” to prevent the breakup of Indian families. To combat this, the BIA issued binding regulations, added a definition for active efforts with examples, and highlighted that active efforts should be provided in a manner consistent with the prevailing social and cultural conditions of the tribe to maintain the Indian family.  25 C.F.R. § 23.2, 2016. Therefore, as a matter of best practice, service providers coming into contact with an Indian family should consider what partnerships with the tribe or Indian social programs could serve or support an Indian family.

California responded to the release of the BIA Regulations by passing Assembly Bill 3176 (AB 3176), which codified the 2016 BIA ICWA Regulations. AB 3176 went into effect on January 1, 2019, and the current definition for active efforts, “the affirmative, active, thorough, and timely efforts intended primarily to maintain or reunite an Indian child with their family,” can be found in Welfare & Institutions Code §224.1. The law proceeds to provide 11 examples of active efforts, here are a few examples:

  • Conducting a comprehensive assessment of the circumstances of the Indian child’s family, with a focus on safe reunification as the most desirable goal.
  • Identifying appropriate services and helping the parents overcome barriers, including actively assisting the parents in obtaining those services.
  • Identifying, notifying, and inviting representatives of the Indian child’s tribe to participate in providing support and services to the Indian child’s family and in family team meetings, permanency planning, and resolution of placement issues.
  • Offering and employing all available and culturally appropriate family preservation strategies and facilitating the use of remedial and rehabilitative services provided by the child’s tribe.
  • Identifying community resources, including housing, financial assistance, transportation, mental health, and substance abuse services, and peer support services, and actively assisting the Indian child’s parents or, when appropriate, the child’s family, in utilizing and accessing those resources.
  • Considering alternative ways to address the needs of the Indian child’s parents and, where appropriate, the family, if the optimum services do not exist or are not available.

When explaining the purpose of the 11 examples of active efforts, the BIA Regulations states this is not an exhaustive list and the minimum actions required to meet active efforts is determined on a case-by-case basis. 80 Fed. Reg. 38778, 38790 (June 14, 2016). Ultimately, “active efforts should be provided in partnership with the Indian child’s Tribe, and should be provided in a manner consistent with the prevailing cultural and social conditions and way of life in the Indian child’s Tribe.” Id.

So, what are the best practices for working with Indian families? The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) prepared a toolkit titled: “Tribal Best Practices.” The toolkit provides important things to keep in mind, such as:

  • Focus on building trust with the family,
  • Remain non-judgmental,
  • Remember that each family is different; there is no one way to respond,
  • Be realistic about expectations,
  • Highlight strengths of the family, and
  • Take a holistic approach and think outside the box for community supports/resources.

The toolkit and other resources for working with Indian families can be found at the NICWA’s website. The toolkit can be found here.

In addition to digital resources, the NICWA hosts an annual conference to discuss upcoming trends and research in Indian child welfare/protection. This year the 38th Annual Conference is scheduled to run from March 30-April 1, 2020, and will be conducted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. CILS, in collaboration with County Counsel from San Diego County, is scheduled to present on the role counties and tribes play in state child welfare cases. If you are interested in attending the virtual conference, you can contact the NICWA at or check back to their website.

More training and self-help information about ICWA here.

Domestic Violence in Indian Country

By Susan Dalati, CILS Escondido office Staff Attorney

In 2015, California Indian Legal Services (“CILS”) created a Legal Team consisting of an attorney and legal advocate to handle legal issues pertaining to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking. The Legal Team members both came from a social service agency where they handled the same types of legal matters. The Legal Team emphasizes working with the Native American communities, primarily in San Diego and Riverside Counties.

Domestic violence is prevalent in many communities, including Indian country. Native American women, in particular, face a higher risk that they will become a victim of domestic violence than the general population, although the Legal Team works with both male and female clients. The Legal Team has been specially trained on the unique issues Native Americans face when they enter the legal system to deal with domestic violence occurring in their households.

One of the biggest challenges is the fact that many victims/survivors lack adequate transportation to be able to get to attorneys, advocates, and the Courts. The Legal Team has tried to alleviate some of their clients’ transportation challenges by providing mobile services for legal appointments as well as walk-in clinics on several local reservations and at Indian Health clinics. However, transportation issues remain when clients need to attend court hearings. The Legal Team tries to connect clients with agencies that can assist with transportation needs.

Some domestic violence victims/survivors (and their children) face homelessness if they decide to leave the abusive household to seek safety. Many victims/survivors have lived on reservations their whole lives and do not want to leave their community. Unfortunately, often it is not safe to stay on the reservation, due to the proximity of the perpetrator. Housing options may be limited, and we are aware of only one Native American domestic violence shelter in San Diego County.  The Legal Team will work with their Clients when this issue arises to explore all options available.

There is a lot of misinformation going around about the rights of domestic violence victims/survivors. It is important that victims/survivors meet with an attorney to learn about their rights and potential legal remedies even if they do not intend to leave the relationship. The Legal Team provides confidential, trauma-informed, judgment-free, culturally appropriate holistic services and serves both male and female clients. Services are free; they are not income-based. The Legal Team does not pressure clients to take any particular action. Rather, they assess their client’s case and present them with options and the pros and cons of each, thereby empowering the client to make an informed decision.

The Legal Team has developed many collaborative relationships with community partners. Therefore, if the client desires services that are outside of their scope, the Legal Team, with their client’s permission, will work with other agencies to address their client’s needs.

More information here.


Covid-19 Notice


Due to the Coronavirus (aka COVID-19) pandemic, CILS offices will not be accepting any walk-in clients or individuals at this time. CILS will remain open and operating at this time but with limited in-person client contact unless absolutely necessary.  CILS offices will remain open until such time we are directed that closure is required or strongly recommended by public health officials.  Should the office close our legal staff will continue to meet their Professional Responsibilities in ensure client case work will continue and that we continue to respond to new client calls for assistance by working remotely and retaining  essential office staff if feasible. Thank you.

CDC Updates on Covid-19: