NICWA Conference Addresses Challenges of the Indian Child Welfare Act

Although, the U.S. federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is designed to keep American Indian children with American Indian families, the law is frequently overlooked. 

This pattern of noncompliance and lack of implementation among state and federal authorities is so pervasive, in fact, that it was the focus of this year’s 30th Annual National American Indian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. The gathering, titled “Protecting Our Children,” was held in Scottsdale, Arizona April 22 to 25.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) is a nonprofit membership organization based in Portland, Oregon that works to support compliance with the ICWA of 1978 through training, technical assistance and support to tribes and other service organizations. It is the only national American Indian organization that is focused specifically on the tribal capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Approximately 600 people attended the conference. The proceedings included presentations and workshops aimed at educating attendees about ways to ensure state and federal compliance with the ICWA law. The conference also showcased examples of successful programming that addressed Indian children’s welfare and mental health, as well as innovative ways that tribal groups are delivering services and creating best practices in their Indian child welfare programming.

Increasing national and state compliance with the ICWA law includes getting accurate information out to the public about the real story of the act and how it impacts Indian children and families, said NICWA Executive Director Terry Cross. To that end, much of the conference focused on strategies in working with the media.

“The media plays a crucial role in telling this story,” Cross said. “Typically the mainstream press picks up a story regarding ICWA only when a non-Indian family has somehow been injured.”

Conference attendees were encouraged to work with the press and alert the NICWA office about local stories involving the ICWA law. “We are finding that it’s possible to defuse an explosive situation by simply getting factual information out to the press,” Cross said.

One panel, “Using Today’s Media to Tell the Story of Our American Indian and Alaska Native Children,” highlighted a recent National Public Radio (NPR) series focusing on Native foster children and families in South Dakota. NPR journalists Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters discussed their work on the series, which was entitled “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families.”

“I was surprised by the response from the state [of South Dakota],” said Sullivan. “I expected a lot more openness from a state that ranks the fourth highest in removal of Indian children from their homes. Many of our requests for information and interviews were denied.”

The product of extensive investigative reporting, the 2011 series drew national attention to the overrepresentation of American Indian children in the foster care system and the way in which states often ignore the ICWA law. NICWA provided considerable information to the journalists, including the history of ICWA as well as important cultural perspectives.

Conference attendees also learned about examples of tribes creating successful new ways to deliver child welfare services.

Ashley Harding, a community development specialist with NICWA, presented information about a tribal in-home service model being created in Alaska. In-home services are directed towards at-risk families and are primarily designed to ensure that families could address problems before children are removed from the home. Such services include help with parenting, early childhood development, prenatal education, child abuse, substance abuse prevention and others.

In addition, NICWA is collaborating with tribes, villages and Alaska Native Corporations, the state of Alaska and national child welfare agencies to create a template for serving American Indian and Alaska Native families and children.

Requested by Alaska Native peoples, the template emphasizes tribal sovereignty by including the specific needs of each community. The Yup’ik tribe near Bethel, for instance, included the need to utilize elders in providing services for families. The information in the template will then be shared with state child welfare agencies to guide them in creating services to complement those already provided by the tribes.

Cross was struck by the high level of participation at the NICWA conference. He observed that the National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, also held in April, typically attracts about 1,200 people.

Although Natives make up about only one percent of the U.S. population, their presence at the NICWA conference reflects a high level of concern for their children. “I think that is very promising for Indian people,” Cross concluded.