Families for Native American children

Considerations when fostering or adopting

When fostering or adopting Native American children who have been removed from their home and placed in the care of the state or the tribe, families must be aware of laws governing the placement and adoption of Native American/Alaska Native children and understand the importance of maintaining children’s cultural heritage.

Legal considerations

What you should know about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 is a federal law that governs the removal and out-of-home placement of eligible American Indian children who are in the state's custody. ICWA establishes standards for the placement of Indian children in foster and adoptive homes and gives tribes legal authority in child welfare cases. It also spells out criteria for foster and pre-adoptive homes.

ICWA placement preferences prioritize keeping Indian children placed with relatives or other Indian families:

“In any adoptive placement of an Indian child under State law, a preference shall be given, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, to a placement with (1) a member of the child's extended family; (2) other members of the Indian child's tribe; or (3) other Indian families.”  ~ 25 U.S. Code § 1915

Your worker can help you understand the implications of ICWA for your specific experience as a foster or adoptive parent.

Brief background on ICWA

The law was enacted after the federal government acknowledged that historically, a high percentage of Indian families—an estimated 25 to 35 percent of the Native American children—had been broken up by the often unwarranted removal of their children by non-tribal public and private agencies. Many of these children were placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions far from their homes.  Children lost touch with their families and their culture, and many suffered abuse.  Read more about ICWA on the the National Indian Child Welfare Association website.

Cultural considerations

It is important that non-native foster and adoptive parents of Native American children encourage their children to maintain connections to their tribe and be involved in their tribe’s cultural heritage.

As a potential foster or adoptive parent, the first steps toward doing this are talking with your caseworker, learning about the child or youth’s tribal affiliation and cultural heritage, and, if appropriate, making connections and developing a relationship with the birth family (which could include immediate and extended family).  

Additional suggestions include:

  • Encourage your caseworker to establish a relationship with the tribe’s ICWA worker.
  • Ask the tribe or (when appropriate) the child or youth’s family to be involved with the child’s growth.
  • Understand that a tribe has a vested interest in the children. Many tribal family members will want to remain connected and may have a deeply held belief that the children’s well-being requires maintaining a connection to their tribe, culture, and traditions.
  • Support the children’s cultural and spiritual development through providing ongoing opportunities for them to learn native culture and traditions (e.g., language, beading, tanning hides, dancing, and singing).

Online resources

Child Welfare Information Gateway:

National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA):

National Indian Law Library: A Practical Guide to the Indian Child Welfare Act

Walking on Common Ground: Resources for promoting and facilitating tribal-state-federal collaborations

AdoptUSKids: Cherokee foster care and adoption guidelines

Additional resources

There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes and Alaskan Native villages in the United States, and each tribe’s government and child welfare systems are different. Many tribes have websites that can help a foster or adoptive parent understand the tribe. These sites may also provide contact information for the tribe’s child welfare program or a contact person within the tribe who works with children covered by ICWA. 

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