November 25, 2019

Adoption Issues: What is the Indian Child Welfare Act?


The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 as a response to the crisis affecting Native and Alaskan American children who were separated from their families, communities and cultural heritage.  To best understand why this law was necessary, it is important to know the practices leading up to the passage of this federal law.

In United States history, there have been a few specific events that contributed to the destruction of Native American heritage and culture, in addition to the general widespread racism that existed as a whole.

Devastation of Native American Communities

One of the first boarding schools called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879. It served as a model to the nearly 150 such schools which opened in the following decades. These boarding schools were government funded and served as forced assimilation. They forced the children to cut their hair, use Anglo-American names, didn’t allow them to speak their native languages, prohibited them from eating traditional Native American foods, and forced them to dress in Anglo-American clothing. They effectively separated these children from their home, families, community and culture. If the children survived the deplorable conditions at many of the boarding schools, many of them had difficulty returning to their tribes. It devastated Native American communities.

Indian Adoption Project

In the decades after WWII, hundreds of Native American children were removed from their communities and placed with white families through adoption or foster care. The dominate belief was that Native American children were better of being raised by white families.  From 1958-1967, 395 Native American children through a program called the Indian Adoption Project. The goal was to assimilate children into white culture. It aspired to systematically place an entire population of children across lines of culture, nation, and race. Ironically, this was a practice that, at the time, was generally discouraged within the adoption community. During that time, it was standard practice to match adoptees with adoptive parents who shared their race. Transracial and International adoption was uncommon at that time.

Response to Egregious Removal Practices

Leading up to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, research showed that 25-35% of all Native American children were removed from their families and placed into white foster or adoptive homes. Of these children 85% were placed outside of their community even when they had a fit and willing relative available to care for them. This rate is much higher than compared to non-Native American children who were placed in foster and adoptive homes. The passage of this federal law was vitally needed to address the longstanding and egregious removal practices which specifically targeted Native American children. ICWA sets forth federal requirements that apply to state custody and adoption hearings involving a Native American child who is a member or eligible for membership of a federally recognized tribe. Currently, there are 573 Federally recognized tribes in the United States.


written by Regina Smith LSCW | Pregnancy Counselor & Home Study Provider

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