In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tribal child welfare practice in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • ICWA
  • ICWA Evaluation
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Academic Institutions Related to ICWA and Tribal Child Welfare
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies

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Social Work Tribal child welfare practice in the United States
Lisa Byers, Dallas Pettigrew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0283


Tribal child welfare in what is now the United States encompasses hundreds of tribal nations engaged in a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Please note that tribal, native, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native American are used interchangeably. Each tribe has distinct languages and customs. Within this diversity the factors that bind tribal nations to make a discussion of tribal child welfare meaningful are communal childrearing, colonization, trauma, contemporary disparities, sovereign status, and detrimental federal policies. Communal cultures provide children with multiple caregivers that assure the youngest are cared for daily. This web of relations combined with high levels of respect for children within the life cycle guarded against abuse and neglect prior to colonization. The establishment of the United States, and federal-level assimilation policies created immense trauma and cultural disruption for tribal nations and child welfare. Government-funded boarding schools and the practice of placing tribal children in non-native homes are two specific assimilation practices that explicitly targeted children. The ability of tribal nations to protect their children and maintain their cultures has been strengthened by a federal law designed to give tribal nation’s a stake in child welfare proceedings. Many tribes now have their own child welfare programs, courts, and other services. State compliance with the law is an ongoing issue. Increased collaboration, respect for the sovereign status of tribes, and evaluation with clear implications for noncompliance needs to ensue are necessary to fully empower tribal child welfare. In addition, truth and reconciliation related to the separation of children from family and culture based on past federal policy practices is necessary to foster communal and generational healing for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.

General Overviews

Tribal childrearing contrasts starkly with Western ways of raising children. The critical role of community in guiding a child through adolescence is the focus of Markstrom 2008, which contrasts this with Western cultural norms. Byers 2010 overviews the literature regarding communal clan-based childrearing by focusing on the importance of grandparents in the daily care of children. Day 2014 details kin- and clan-based parenting and relational tribal teachings that underlie the value of children as sacred. The enduring importance of a communal focus is within the review of the existing articles related to culturally based practice with tribal children provided by Haight, et al. 2018. George 1997 provides an in-depth analysis of the ideological clash between tribal nations and American officials. Bearse 2013 deepens our understanding of ideological implications by detailing US assimilation practices toward tribal children. Boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project (IAP) disrupted traditional child welfare. Boarding school officials forbade tribal languages and religions, and children were given American names. Children also endured neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Some boarding school survivors proved resilient and returned home to be enfolded back into the culture. Many others faced marginalization upon return, based on the lack of tribal enculturation during their critical developmental years. Lomawaima 1994 provides one of the earliest accounts of boarding school life through interviews with alumni from Chilloco. One gains a sense of daily life and the resistance many tribal children displayed by retaining their languages and spirituality. The traumatic federal pattern of child removal was repeated between the 1950s and 1970s as tribal nations endured 25–35 percent of children being in out of home placements, facilitated by the Indian Adoption Project. Case reviews showed cultural bias was the source for the placements versus neglect or abuse. Jacobs 2013 provides a detailed account of the Indian Adoption Project’s inner workings and philosophies of bias, along with the actions that led to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Jacobs 2014 expands the author’s study of the IAP to similar practices in Canada and Australia. Jacobs’s extensive history of the activism that led to the passage of the ICWA is framed against oral histories of families. Reading the words of adults that were removed as children offers an intimate awareness of the traumatic impact and resiliency exemplified in tribal nations, families, and clans. Attean, et al. 2012 focuses on healing these traumas by giving prominence to tribal voices and state accountability.

  • Attean, E. A., P. Burns, M. Proulx, J. Bissonette-Lewey, J. Williams, and K. Deserly. 2012. Truth, healing, systems change: The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Child Welfare 91.3: 15–30.

    The article focuses on healing through the inclusion of Wabanaki voices regarding the history and impacts of the disproportionate out-of-home placement of Wabanaki children in Maine. The authors detail the federal and state policy history regarding child welfare systems. This material is particularly useful for those interested in replicating a truth and reconciliation process.

  • Bearse, M. L. 2013. Native Americans: Practice interventions. In Oxford encyclopedia of social work. Edited by Cynthia Franklin. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.604

    The author provides an overview of Native American demographics, historical oppression, contemporary disparities, values, and healing practices.

  • Byers, L. 2010. Native American grandmothers, cultural tradition and contemporary necessity. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work 19:305–316.

    DOI: 10.1080/15313204.2010.523653

    This work reviews the research on traditional childrearing by Native American grandmothers and grandfathers defined by clan membership. Contemporary contexts for grandparent families are also summarized.

  • Day, P. 2014. Raising healthy American Indian children. In Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island. Edited by H. N. Weaver, 93–111. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

    The chapter describes the importance of kinship ties to the transmission of cultural values and the attainment of a healthy ethnic identity for American Indian and Alaska Native children. Traditional tribal teachings of the Anishinaabeg are shared as a demonstration of a relational worldview.

  • George, L. J. 1997. Why the need for the Indian Child Welfare Act? Journal of Multicultural Social Work 5.3–4: 165–175.

    DOI: 10.1300/J285v05n03_04

    A comprehensive account of the origins and endings of boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project. The biased values behind these eras are framed against the disempowered status of tribes following their removal from homelands that resulted in devastating population losses. Quotes from Indian agents and citing of the IAP records enrich the understanding of the ideologies that were the foundation for the out-of-tribe placement of children.

  • Haight, W., C. Waubanascum, D. Glesener, and S. Marsalis. 2018. A scoping study of indigenous child welfare: The long emergency and preparations for the next seven generations. Children and Youth Services Review 93:397–410.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.08.016

    The researchers reviewed thirty-seven peer-reviewed publications to determine the current state of literature, why disproportionate numbers of tribal children continue to be placed out of home, cultural beliefs regarding children, evidence related to cultural programs, and challenges to putting more of these cultural programs into practice.

  • Jacobs, M. D. 2013. Remembering the “Forgotten Child”: The American Indian child welfare crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. American Indian Quarterly 37.1–2: 136–159.

    DOI: 10.1353/aiq.2013.0014

    Begins with an account of a 1975 adoption of a tribal child by a white couple based on unscrupulous methods. Jacobs details the Indian Adoption Project ideology and its public relations activities as she connects it to the boarding school practices. The efforts of tribal nations and the Association on American Indian Affairs that led to the Indian Child Welfare Act are also shared.

  • Jacobs, M. D. 2014. A generation removed: The fostering and adoption of indigenous children in the postwar world. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1d9nmm2

    The author builds on her 2013 article with more depth and an expansion to Australian and Canadian child removal policies and practices. The inclusion of other countries creates awareness of child removal as a tool of cultural oppression internationally.

  • Lomawaima, K. T. 1994. They called it prairie light: The story of Chilocco Indian School. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Archived records and sixty-one Chilocco alumni interviews reveal that poverty and a lack of educational options led many students to the boarding school. The book provides an inside look at the administration, the daily schedules of students, and how the school changed over time. The resistance of tribal children is memorable in this work that details students sabotaging the administration, using tribal languages, and practicing spirituality in secret.

  • Markstrom, Carol. 2008. The empowerment of North American Indian girls: Ritual expressions at puberty. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1dfnv6w

    In-depth qualitative research frames the author’s review of the literature related to indigenous puberty ceremonies. She contrasts Western developmental theory with tribal cultural orientations. This contrast is useful in providing understanding of the communal orientation to development across the lifespan. In particular, the importance of a mentor and community in the support of youth is a focus of her findings.

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