The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

July 12, 2005 at 2:42 pm  •  Posted in Youth Development by  •  0 Comments

By Mary Huyser, MSW, ACSW

Introduction What Was the Indian Adoption Era?
Indian Child Welfare Act What Does the Act Do?
Why Was the Act Needed? How Can Social Workers Help
The Government Boarding School Era Resources


“American Indians and Alaska Natives” (AI/AN) describes a diverse group of people, made up of about 560 tribes living in the rural and urban areas of 35 states. This group consists of more than 4.6 million people who, according to the CDC, classified themselves as either AI/AN alone or “in combination with another race.” Between 1990 and 2000, the AI/AN population grew by 26 percent.

Although they number in the millions—and their population is increasing—AI/ANs have the highest poverty rates of any minority or ethnic group in the United States (nearly twice the overall national poverty rate).

Additionally, they also face “health disparities,” which means this group suffers from higher levels of certain preventable health conditions (such as diabetes, cancer, injuries, alcoholism, and drug addiction), than other groups in the U.S. In fact, the rates of injuries and diabetes among AI/ANs are two to three times higher than all racial/ethnic populations combined.

In addition to health issues, AI/ANs have endured decades of discrimination and harsh—even cruel—treatment. Perhaps the most barbaric has been the loss of their children, who have been forcibly removed from their homes among their tribes for decades.

Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted in 1978 to protect Indian children, families, and tribes. Under the Act, tribes—which have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S.—have the right to self govern and to oversee child welfare issues among tribal members.

Why Was the Indian Child Welfare Act Needed?

Two historical eras played an important role in the creation of the ICWA—the “Boarding School Era” (1880s–1950s) and the “Indian Adoption Era” (1950s–1978). During both eras Indian children were forcibly removed from their families and cultures so they could be “assimilated,” or re-educated to fit into mainstream society. During these eras, churches and private organizations received money (in the form of grants) to help them “civilize,” “save,” and “cleanse” the Indian population.

What Was the Government Boarding School Era?

From the 1880s through the 1950s, the U.S. Government backed efforts to:

  • Remove young Indian children from their homes and tribal communities, sending them to live at schools great distances away;
  • Forced these children to blend into mainstream society by teaching English and Christianity;
  • Maintained military-style atmosphere at the boarding schools; and
  • Prevented the children from seeing their families or siblings, speaking in their native languages, or participating in their cultural and spiritual traditions.
What Was the Indian Adoption Era?

As part of the Child Welfare League of America’s Indian Adoption Project, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America worked together to conduct a 10-year experiment. During this time, 650 children taken from tribes were placed in non-Indian homes, resulting in 395 adoptions. Throughout this era private/public agencies were “rescuing” children from their own culture, families and tribes.

What Does the Indian Child Welfare Act Do?

The ICWA focuses on the large number of Indian children who are removed from their families (a number much higher than among other racial/ethnic groups), and the frequent placement of Indian children in non-Indian substitute care and adoptive settings.

The Act requires that active efforts be made to keep families together. If it’s necessary to remove a child from his or her home, efforts must be made to bring the family back together. This means that everything possible must be done to help the family resolve the problems that led to neglect or abuse, including referral to services that are sensitive to the family’s culture.

The Indian Child Welfare Act applies to four types of child custody proceedings:

  1. Foster care placements;
  2. Termination of certain parental rights, including stepparent adoption proceedings and delinquency proceedings;
  3. Pre-adoption placements; and
  4. Adoption placements.
How Can Social Workers Help AI/AN Children and Families?

Social workers can:

  • Be advocates for Native American children and families
  • Help families obtain necessary resources such as food, shelter, medical care, daycare, financial or housing assistance, etc.
  • Teaching family members skills such as parenting, household management, etc.
  • Educating families about preventative health care
  • Help people understand why it’s important to keep taking medications for chronic illnesses such as diabetes.
  • Provide assistance to parents suffering from alcohol or other drug abuse

Offering marriage counseling or therapy for mental health problems (depression, anxiety, etc.)


For more information about the ICWA, contact:

Indian Child Welfare Programs
Casey Family Programs
360 Interlocken Blvd., Suite 100
Broomfield, CO 80021

National Indian Child Welfare Association
5100 SW Macadan Ave., Suite 300
Portland. Oregon 97201 Site contains an excellent training tool on ICWA

Denver Indian Family Resource Center
393 South Harlen St., Suite 100
Lakewood, CO 80226

North American Indian Legal Services
1710 South Balsam
Lakewood, CO 80232


Mr. Ed Rivera of the Casey Family Programs helped the author write this article.

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