What is ICWA?

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 is a federal law designed to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” ICWA requires child protective services to actively involve tribes when providing intervention and services to Native American children and their families. Congress passed ICWA in response to alarmingly high rates of separation of Native American families, with the goal of preserving Native American families and culture. In 2009, to improve clarity and compliance with ICWA, Wisconsin signed into law the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA). WICWA was then incorporated into Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 48 (Children’s Code). Prior to passage of WICWA, Native American children in Wisconsin were about 1600 times more likely to be removed from their home by public social services than non-Native children. 32 states have state statutes related to enhancing or complying with ICWA.

Why is ICWA important?

  • Prior to ICWA, 25-35% of all Native American children were separated from their families and 90% were placed in non-Native foster homes, adoptive homes or institutions.
  • Today, a disproportionate number of Native American children are placed in foster care. While 2% of US children are American Indian/Alaska Native, they represent 8.4% of children in foster care.
  • In 2016, 7.2% (536) of the 7,482 children in out-of-home care in Wisconsin were Native American. 44% of Native children in out-of-home care were placed with Native American families.

How does ICWA help? Key points:

  • Federal law requires notification of relatives within 30 days of any child’s placement in foster care, but ICWA also requires a Native American child’s tribe be informed whenever a Native American child is removed from family. Tribal courts have the option of taking exclusive jurisdiction and can intervene in county proceedings.
  • ICWA requires that placements fit under its preference provisions, so caseworkers must try to place Native American children with their relatives, members of their tribe, or members of other tribes before alternative arrangements are considered.
  • ICWA requires the high standard of active efforts by the courts and child protection to work to preserve Native American families and culture.
  • ICWA applies not only to child protective services but also to guardianship and power of attorney cases.

Stories of ICWA

“When I was removed from my family, I was six, maybe seven years old, on Christmas eve. My grandmother’s house wasn’t to the standards the white social workers thought was in our best interests. My [family] was standing there screaming and watching as we drove away…. It was very, very traumatic. I can still remember it like it was yesterday.”

The powerful video Missing Threads: The Story of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act highlights the pain and loss of Native Americans who were forcefully separated from their families and placed in non-Native American homes.

For more information about the history and implementation of ICWA, see The Heart of ICWA for videos of Native families sharing their stories of loss and healing at the National Indian Child Welfare Association.