An empirical examination of the Indian Child Welfare Act and its impact on cultural and familial preservation for American Indian children

Child Abuse Negl. 2004 Dec;28(12):1279-89. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2004.06.012.


Objective: Cultural and familial ties are crucial for the overall well-being of children. Extant research and permanency planning practices support the reunification of children with their families when possible. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted to promote cultural and familial preservation for Indian children, but sparse empirical research has examined the implementation and outcomes associated with this landmark legislation. This article examines the relationship between compliance with ICWA in one Southwestern state and the rate of reunification of Indian children with family or tribal members following out-of-home placement.

Method: Public child protection records were reviewed for 49 ICWA-eligible children who were placed in alternate care. Data were collected on compliance with placement type, use of qualified expert witnesses, and incorporation of Indian culture and resources. Additionally, 78 state caseworkers and 16 tribal workers were surveyed regarding knowledge and attitudes about three areas of compliance.

Results: Case record reviews indicated that the majority (83%) of Indian children were placed according to preferences outlined by ICWA. Almost all cases included a court finding that active efforts were applied to prevent family breakup. While state workers reported limited understanding of many ICWA's requirements, both state and tribal workers reported a high level of state-tribal cooperation in working with Indian families and children.

Conclusions: Results of this study point to two major patterns of findings: (1) individual case record reviews suggest compliance with ICWA; and (2) differences exist in knowledge and perceptions of ICWA by state and tribal workers. Furthermore, state child protection systems should follow the American Indian lead in further emphasizing cultural and familial ties for children. Highlighting such ties acknowledges the importance of reunification and cultural and familial preservation to enable children to have a clear sense of tradition and belonging. Evidence indicates that compliance with ICWA promotes better outcomes through reunification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse* / ethnology
  • Child Abuse* / prevention & control
  • Child Abuse* / statistics & numerical data
  • Child Welfare / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Culture*
  • Empirical Research
  • Family / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American*
  • Public Policy
  • Registries
  • United States