Assemblyman Paul Cook has amassed perhaps the strongest record of legislative success in Native American cultural and social issues of any current California legislator. Cook was the lead author of landmark legislation establishing “Tribal Customary Adoption” for Native American children. This legislation established the legal standing of a tribe in the adoption of a Native American child and created a novel legal concept of dual parentage, so that the child can retain a connection to the biological parents. Cook’s Tribal Customary Adoption law has set the precedent for other states, and efforts are underway to replicate its success. Additionally, Cook secured passage of separate legislation to ensure the legal standing of a dependent Native American youths once they reach the age of 18. Cook was also instrumental in freeing $30 million from the Special Distribution Fund, which is intended to mitigate the effects of gaming in local communities.
Tribal Customary Adoptions
Cook’s efforts to create a special system of adoption for Native American children was a multi-year effort that began in the summer of 2007. In the past, standard adoption had been used to assimilate Native American children into non-Native American communities. Often, adoptive families, most of them well meaning, denied Native American children their heritage, changed the children’s names, and raised them in communities where few others shared their tribal heritage and culture. Many adopted children had significant problems adapting to their new communities. This adoption process included a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) of the biological parents, which severed the legal ties between a child and the tribe. Cook’s Assembly Bill 2736 proposed a new system of adoption. TPR would not occur if the termination would substantially interfere with the child’s connection to his or her tribal membership or if there was a guardian or foster parent within the tribe for a permanent living situation. Moreover, under AB 2736, the child’s tribe would have greater legal standing throughout the adoption process: state courts were required to consult with the tribes. These concepts were groundbreaking in California law, in that no other adoption process allowed, in essence two sets of legal parents, nor does any other adoption process allow the input of a third party such as a tribe. When AB 2736 failed passage, Cook reintroduced the measure and doubled his efforts to educate Legislators on the history and circumstances of Native American adoptions. Of equal importance, the effort had reached nearly all federally recognized tribes in California by that time, and the Native American community coalesced in favor of the legislation, lobbying legislators and advocating for the bill. With little change to the goals or policy from the previous bill, AB 1325 succeeded where AB 2736 failed and was signed into law in October, 2009. AB 1325 allowed Native American children and families to realize the permanency and support of adoption without the culturally offensive precursor of terminating the legal connection to the tribe. Within months of its passage, several cases were being prepared to utilize this new system of adoption. With increased usage, Tribal Customary Adoption is one new way of preserving the community and heritage of California’s Native American tribes.
Native American Dependent Youth
Before AB 2418 in 2010 by Cook, state statute concerning Native American children did not protect youths over the age of 18. A dependent Native American youth who turned 18 was not considered an "Indian" under the legal definition. When the Native American youth was deemed non-Indian for purposes such as dependency law, tribes lost the ability to participate and assist in legal proceedings related to the tribal child. Thus, the overall interests of Native American youths, families, and tribes suffered. AB 2418 now allows dependent Native American youth over the age of 18 to be eligible for application of the Indian Child Welfare Act until the age of 21.
Gaming Special Distribution Fund
In accordance with the 1999 Tribal State Compacts, the Special Distribution Fund (SDF) provides funding for non gaming tribes, local governments, and special districts impacted by tribal gaming. Grants from the fund can be used for local law enforcement, fire and emergency services, environmental impacts, and other services. In the 2007/08 fiscal year, Gov. Schwarzenegger froze $30 million in the SDF, labeling the action a “savings,” even though the funds could not be used for any other purpose. In 2010, Cook introduced AB 2198 to restore the $30 million so that it could be used for its intended purpose. While the bill did not pass, Cook worked to include this funding as part of the budget process and, with diligence, the release of the $30 million was achieved in the budget that year.