Tara ‘Katuk’ Sweeney, Iñupiat member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior

Jeannie Hovland, Flandreau Santee Sioux Member and Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The authors serve on the Operation Lady Justice Task Force established by President Donald Trump’s November 26, 2019, executive order on supporting and protecting Native American woman and children.

As Native peoples, we can take great pride in achieving many things, such as preserving our cultures, keeping alive our languages and traditional beliefs, protecting the beauty and value of our natural resources, and increasing educational and economic opportunities for our children and youth. Despite years of hard work by tribal and other government leaders and advocates dedicated to these efforts, however, far too many of our families and communities continue to struggle with the effects of traumas, including marginalization, injustice, and poverty. These traumas, both historic and modern, have kept many from realizing their best potential as human beings and as Native peoples. They have also led to generations of broken families and lost children.

By passing down our languages, stories, traditions, and ways of life, our ancestors created social safety nets which have continued through today. These ancestral safety nets are meant to keep our families and communities safe, secure, and healthy. We are living proof that our ancestors’ courage, determination, sacrifice, and belief in protecting the world for the Seventh Generation were not in vain. To honor them, though, we must make sure we repair and hold onto these safety nets while we keep pace with modern times. This includes protecting Native children and keeping their families whole.

In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), widely received in American Indian communities as a huge victory and a vital part of our ancestral safety net. Given its goal to protect and preserve American Indian and Alaska Native families and communities, ICWA is still one of the most progressive pieces of legislation of its time. Forty-two years since its passage, significant challenges remain to fully implementing its provisions. AI/AN children continue to be placed into the foster care system at disproportionately high rates and are often placed in non-Native homes outside of their tribal communities and cultures.

Like salmon trying to swim upstream to their home waters, tribes face numerous barriers to realizing ICWA’s promise. They include the need for local, state, and national collaboration, education, and training about and enforcement of ICWA’s provisions, and additional resources for tribes to assist children and families.

Within our respective agencies, we are committed to building capacity within both state and tribal family court systems to implement ICWA as intended by Congress. Among our priorities is working in collaboration across the federal government and with tribal communities to strengthen ICWA and carry out its mandates. For example, the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Office of Justice Services (OJS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Native Americans (ANA) have partnered with the Casey Family Programs foundation to support making available training about ICWA to state and tribal court judges. We also continue to explore our current activities and resources while looking for new ways to strengthen ICWA.

From April to June, despite COVID-19, OJS and ANA collaborated with tribal judges in a series of 27 virtual tribal court roundtables, with technical assistance provided by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Although their focus was on child dependency cases, we also heard about additional challenges these courts are facing due to the pandemic. The roundtables have proved invaluable to everyone involved with tribal courts and the communities they serve.

While demanding compliance and accountability under ICWA, we also need to look further upstream in the process of keeping families together. HHS and DOI have an opportunity to continue our work in partnership with tribes to strengthen families and help keep their children safe, healthy, and thriving in their homes.

In 2018, Congress passed the Families First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). This progressive law, which is implemented by HHS's Children's Bureau, provides funding for services to families before children are removed from their homes when they are deemed to be at risk. It provides an unprecedented opportunity to "move upstream" in the placement process by using prevention and intervention services for families in crisis. Services can include mental health services, substance use treatment, and in-home parenting skills training. Because of FFPSA, in conjunction with OJS and ANA and training provided by OJS's Tribal Court Services office, there is the potential for tribal courts to have new tools to keep children safely in their homes.

As members of the President’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, also known as Operation Lady Justice (OLJ), we, along with our colleagues, are working to develop a framework for strengthening vulnerable populations that may be at risk of going missing or becoming victims of violent crime. Children in the foster care system are part of the vulnerable populations we will be working with. The bottom line for us is that tribes and families deserve to know where their children are and that they are safe – a challenge when they are placed in non-Native foster homes outside of their communities.

It is incumbent upon all segments of Indian Country’s people – tribal leaders, social workers, health care providers, educators, parents, spiritual leaders, police, courts, and other community members – to work together with federal officials in repairing and strengthening Indian Country’s ancestral social safety net. All of us must work together so that the most vulnerable in our communities – especially our children – are protected and that ICWA’s promise is realized. For without their children, every tribe is imperiled, and history has shown that when a community loses its children, it has no future.