CYF News | December 2017

The Indian Child Welfare Act and fostering youth cultural identity

A new model to provide culturally competent services to American Indian children, families and tribes.

By Kathy D. LaPlante, MSW

As a child welfare social worker, I worked in the largest county in the United States with the largest urban American Indian population in the United States. I worked in the Indian Child Welfare Unit (ICWA Unit) that provided specialized, culturally competent services to American Indian children, families and tribes from throughout the United States. My job was to ensure agency compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, including the investigation of child abuse, active efforts to reunify families, culturally competent case management, and proper and timely court filings. The juvenile dependency court system had a courtroom designated specifically for Indian Child Welfare cases. The judges and attorneys were experts in Indian Child Welfare legal proceedings, and at times during my tenure, all of the staff social workers in the ICWA Unit were American Indian, including the supervisors. The ICWA Unit social workers provided a continuum of services to children and families for the entirety of the family’s involvement with the child welfare system, from investigation to permanency planning. A social worker could remain as the child’s social worker for months and in other cases years. I worked with numerous youth in my 13 years of service, many of whom grew up in the foster care system until legal emancipation. 

An American Indian Unit model is a culturally competent approach to providing child protection services to American Indian children and families and could serve as an effective model for all State child welfare programs. Today, as a social work professor and advocate, this experience, along with my work with tribes throughout the country, is what motivates me to seek models to better serve American Indian children.

Native American youth in foster care data

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau, Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) on Sept. 30, 2015, 427,910 children were in foster care, of which 2 percent (10,130) were American Indian. At that same time, 243,060 children were exiting foster care. Two percent (5,249) were American Indian. Reasons for exiting the system included reunification with parents, living with relatives, emancipation, guardianship and transfer to another agency. 

Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted in 1978. The intent of the act was to ensure that Native American children were not lost to state child welfare agencies when situations of child abuse and neglect occurred. The ICWA sets in place provisions to ensure the child’s respective tribe is notified of state child custody proceedings and gives tribes the legal authority to intervene in those court proceedings.  

The following are some of the major provisions of ICWA (USDHHS, 2015): 

  • Established minimum federal standards for the removal of Native American children from their families.
  • Required Native American children to be placed in foster or adoptive homes that reflect Native American culture.
  • Created exclusive Tribal jurisdiction over all Indian child custody proceedings when requested by the Tribe, parent or Indian “custodian” (except in cases where such jurisdiction is contrary to other Federal law, e.g., P.L. 280).
  • Granted preference to Indian family environments in adoptive or foster care placement.
  • Required State and Federal courts to give full faith and credit to Tribal court decrees.

Court procedures such as active efforts, placement preferences and notification to the tribe, are the legal mandates of ICWA when an American Indian child enters state custody due to abuse or neglect. For those children identified as American Indian, compliance to the Indian Child Welfare Act is critical for legal reasons but significant for the cultural preservation of American Indian identity for youth.

Precursors to ICWA

Prior to the enactment of the ICWA, the Indian Adoption Act of 1958 allowed government officials to remove American Indian children from their parents and tribal communities to be adopted by white families. The intent of the Indian Adoption Act was to assimilate the native child. This assimilation strategy took away their cultural identity and connection to their tribal community and the parent or tribe had no recourse to the removal because it was federal government policy; in other words legal. Another culturally destructive policy was boarding schools. Beginning in 1879, boarding schools for American Indian children became another attempt of assimilation to the morals and values of the dominant culture. Children were separated from their parents early in their lives where they had no parental modeling and experienced harsh discipline. The boarding school assimilation policy had horrific repercussions for American Indian children and tribal communities. An intergenerational breakdown of cultural values and traditional belief systems occurred for several generations during the Boarding School era and the transmission of culture was significantly affected. The Boarding School Era and the effects of intergenerational trauma contribute to many of the current social problems experienced in tribal communities today.

Cultural identity and ICWA

The underlying intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act is preservation of cultural identity for American Indian children. The best way to achieve this is for the child to remain with their respective tribe, family or extended family to ensure a healthy sense of cultural identity is experienced and nurtured. However, reunification with the child’s family does not always happen, for many reasons, and that means that some children will have to remain in state foster care until emancipation. For these youth, cultural preservation plans need to be created. The plans could help ensure a strong cultural identity so the child can emerge into adulthood with a healthy sense of self that will provide a protective factor for the youth. The cultural plans would balance both cultural knowledge and mainstream life skills necessary for an American Indian youth and their successful transition to adulthood.

What is American Indian (AI) cultural identity? 

A working definition of cultural identity is difficult because of the number of respective Tribes in the United States who have their own languages, cultural traditions, ceremonies and belief systems. There are over 580 Native American tribes in the United States, (many more tribes exist but do not have federal recognition by the United States federal government).

According to Marlene Echohawk, PhD, (1997), “If there were ever an area of “common ground” among Native American tribes, it can be said to have been in the area of a religious belief system. None of the tribes were without a belief in a supreme being. “Another underlying similarity of culture between tribal nations is the belief that a strong cultural identity offers youth a strong sense of belonging and therefore creates a resilient child.  

The Batchewana First Nation, an Ojibwe band located in Northern Ontario Canada, conducted a research study titled, “Understanding the Strengths of Indigenous Communities”. The research conducted was with five communities. One community studied culture answering the questions: What is culture? What does culture mean to us? and how does it play a role in our lives? The study showed that “cultural renewal may lead to a stronger sense of identity and pride, resulting in personal and community empowerment” (Broad, Boyer, & Chataway, 2006). This reinforces the need to consider programming for Native foster youth who reside in foster care. 

According to Martin Brokenleg, PhD, (2012), “cultural identity is transmitted by parents and extended family and tribal community to the child.” How do we recreate this transmission for those youth in long-term care? Brokenleg goes on to say, “One cannot teach resiliency with words or posters. What we need are transformative experiences.” In his work on Reclaiming Youth and the Circle of Courage Model, four dimensions of self should be lived by youth for the creation of a strong sense of identity. They are Belonging: one matters to others; Mastery: capable and can solve problems and develop talents; Independence: control over one’s emotions; and Generosity: one is of value to others (Brokenleg, 2002). This excellent framework could be adapted culturally for American Indian foster youth residing in long-term foster care. 

Effects of the loss of cultural identity

Research reveals that foster youth have difficulty transitioning to life after emancipation. Many live on the streets, lack funds for basic living expenses, lack regular employment and are often involved with the criminal justice system, (Reilly, 2003). For American Indian youth, the loss of cultural identity compounds these negative outcomes.

The work of Carol Locust in her Split Feather study (2000) found Native American children adopted as infants from their tribal communities and families suffered as adults with emotional, psychological and spiritual issues. As a direct result of the loss of cultural experiences and the transmission of a cultural identity, their psychological and emotional wounding had lifetime consequences. Children in foster care are victims of child abuse and then experience re-victimization by having to remain in state foster care. Cultural knowledge can help to heal the trauma of the abuse and give the child a spiritual connection that can offer a source of strength to them as they make their way to adulthood, creating a cultural protective factor.  

Another research study by Schweigman, et al, (2011), found that the association between cultural activities and ethnic identity was significant among urban youth but not significant among reservation youth. This suggests that urban youth who do not live and grow up in their respective tribal communities, are the minorities in their urban communities and it is important for them to participate in cultural events to help them maintain a strong connection to their Native American heritage. Many foster youth grow up in urban America.

Considerations for meeting the cultural needs of Native American youth in long term foster care. Can an AI identity happen for youth in care?

Cultural preservation plans

An American Indian Unit model, similar to the specialized Indian Child Welfare Program in Los Angeles County, could help guide services to meet the needs of American Indian youth residing in state care.  State and tribal judges could agree to cultural preservation plans for every youth court ordered to permanent, long-term foster care. The cultural plan could give cultural support to nonnative placements and be in alignment with cultural preservation goals of the ICWA. The cultural plans could include an approval for tribal enrollment or visits with extended family. Another plan might include attendance to cultural activities and events to help nurture a continued sense of Native identity for youth. The activities could help to create a sense of belonging for the youth once emancipated from care.

Tribal Nations could work collaboratively with state social services to create coming home ceremonies for native youth through summer programs. This would allow AI foster youth the opportunity to learn their cultural ceremonies, kinship ties and learn the history of their people.

The Chafee Foster Care Independence Program of 1999 provides greater flexibility for states to carry out programs designed to help youth make the transition from foster care to self-sufficiency (U.S., DHHS, 2002). This legislation is important for Indian Child Welfare because the law requires that states consult Indian tribes and consider the needs of Indian children when developing state five-year plans or programs to assist youth in transition out of foster care (Clemens, 2000). 

An independent living program designed specifically for American Indian foster youth could help educate these youth about the history of American Indians in this country and the effects of historical trauma. The program could draw upon the work of American Indian researchers who have created life skills curriculums for American Indian youth and their preparation for adulthood, and who have identified “themes” on the needs of American Indian adolescent youth in transition. The emergent themes found in one study centered around cultural values, beliefs and skills needed and considered common in many tribal communities: (a) money, (b) resources, (c) spirituality, (d) interdependence versus independence, (e) intergenerational learning, (f) tribal identity and (g) multiple lifeways (Long, Downs, Gillette, Kills in Sight, Ironcloud, 2006).

The youth could also begin to identify resources available to them as American Indians such as health care, educational scholarships or to make connections to other tribal resources as they venture into the world of adulthood. This sense of attachment to their respective Native communities will help nurture their cultural identity and provide a sense of empowerment and hope.    

Overall, cultural preservation plans could help American Indian foster youth acquire, internalize and transmit the important emotional and psychological protective factors of culture.

The replication of an American Indian Unit model would centralize services to American Indian children and families within the child welfare system. Compliance to the ICWA and meeting its legal mandates would help ensure American Indian children receive services afforded to them under the law. The American Indian Unit model could help improve child welfare workforce needs by training caseworkers as specialists in the area of Indian Child Welfare. 


Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.

Broad, G., Boyer, S., Chataway, C. (2006). We Are Still the Aniishnaabe Nation: Embracing Culture and Identity in Batchewana First Nation. Canadian Journal of Communication, 31, 35-58.

Brokenleg, M. (2012). Transforming cultural trauma into resilience. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 21, 2, 43-47.

Clemens, N. (2000). Improving access to independent living services for tribes and American Indian youth. Seattle: Casey Family Programs.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman. 

EchoHawk, Marlene, (1997). Suicide: The Scourge of Native American people. Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior, 27, 1.

Locust, C. (2000). Split Feathers…Adult American Indians Who Were Placed in Non-Indian Families as Children. Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Society, 44(3), 11-16

Long, C., Downs, C., Gillette, B., Kills in Sight, L., Iron-Cloud Konen, E. (2006).  Assessing Cultural Life Skills of American Indian Youth. Child, Youth Care Forum, 35, 289–304. 

Reilly, T. (2003). Transition from Care: Status and Outcomes of Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care, Child Welfare, 82, 727-746.

Schweigman, K., Soto, C., Wright, S., Unger, J., (2011). The Relevance of Cultural Activities in Ethnic Identity Among California Native American Youth. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43(4), 343–348.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau (2015). The AFCARS report: preliminary estimates as of June, 2016 (23). Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, 2012. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015. Retrieved from

Author bio