Indian Child Welfare Activist Receives Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps’ Award


“Terry [Cross] is a quietly powerful man,” Ed Kelley, president and chief executive officer of the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Soft spoken and gentle, but his resolve and his force around advocating for Native American children is unstoppable.”

Cross, the founder and executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), based in Portland, Oregon, accepted the Embracing the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps on June 9 in Boston, Massachusetts at the agency’s dinner in honor of social justice heroes throughout the nation. The Embracing the Legacy Award recognizes Cross for his 32 years of work dedicated to American Indian and Alaska Native children and families and developing and improving child welfare programs.

An enrolled member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Cross founded NICWA—originally established as the Northwest Indian Child Welfare Institute—in October 1983. The only national American Indian organization focused specifically on the tribal capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect, NICWA’s mission is to provide vital resources to the American Indian people, improve the well-being of Indian children and advocate for their interests.

“Since our inception, in our work to get tribes access to more services, we have brought cumulatively more than $3 billion in services to Indian Country,” Cross told ICTMN. “We are very proud of that accomplishment.”

Since the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, American Indian people and governments have had the capacity to provide their own child welfare services, Cross explained. Nearly every tribe in the country now runs its own child welfare service, but the NICWA still works to help tribes refine their programs and collaboration with city and state child welfare agencies.

“Despite the National Indian Child Welfare Act, a large number of tribal children are being placed outside of their families and culture by state and county child welfare agencies,” Cross told ICTMN. “One of our solutions to that problem is much greater collaboration between tribes and state services. Our underlying philosophy is that when adults in a child’s life work together, children get better care—whether in a family or a system.”

And in a fairly recent legislative success, NICWA advocated for tribal access to Title IV of the Social Security Act. “For 17 years, we advocated for … the federal program that reimburses states for the cost of children in the foster care system. Before 2009, the funds were not available to tribes,” Cross told ICTMN. “Through our advocacy, tribes now have access to federal funding that helps pay for foster care.”

The RFK Children’s Action Corps’ board unanimously voted for Cross to win the Embracing the Legacy Award. “Once the committee fully understood who he was, we became quite intrigued by him,” Kelley told ICTMN. “Most [people] said, ‘I want to vote for him, because I want to meet him.’”

The Embracing the Legacy Award recognizes “those who have courageously worked to eliminate injustice and inequity in society that affect children and families,” according to the agency’s website.

“It was a total surprise,” Cross told ICTMN of being nominated for the award. “Not only is it a personal honor to receive such as award, but I’m really pleased American Indian children and families are getting some attention, because these issues tend to go unnoticed. I think one of the important outcomes of something like this [award] is to have the awareness of these issues being raised to the national level.”

According to Kelley, the agency reciprocates Cross’ feeling of honor. “There is a very eye-level, mutual respect for both foundations, organizations,” Kelley told ICTMN the day after Joseph P. Kennedy III, the grandson of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, presented Cross with the award. “If I needed someone to advance my cause, I’d want Terry.”