Understanding Why ICWA Compliance is Important for Judges

August 13, 2012

In December 2011, with support from Casey Family Programs, the Lead Judges of the Model Courts Project met to better understand the reasons the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was implemented and the experiences of Native children in the child welfare system. The judges listened to powerful testimony from Native adoptees and a birth mother who experienced the loss of connection and culture through their experiences in the child welfare system. They learned about the history of child welfare in Indian country and systematic practices to purposely break up tribal families. These practices included removing thousands of Native children from their families and tribes, first by placing children in boarding schools far from home and for years at a time, and then later, through the Indian Adoption Project undertaken by the Child Welfare League of America and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, placing Native children in foster care for adoption by non-Native families. The legacy of these policies and their negative impacts on tribal communities and families continue today. 

This testimony, along with presentations from tribal judges and other experts, helped the judges understand the importance of maintaining Native children’s connections to family, community and culture. Congress recognized the significance of these connections more than 30 years ago in the findings set forth in the ICWA.

With a deeper understanding of the impact of past governmental policies on Native children and families and a recognition that the ICWA’s vision of keeping Native children connected with their tribal heritage is still unrealized, NCJFCJ’s Model Court Lead Judges committed to improving compliance with the ICWA in their local jurisdictions. Commitment and partnerships from all involved in child welfare are required to achieve ICWA compliance.

Video from the December 2011 Lead Judges Meeting

Click here to watch “The History and Spirit of ICWA."

PowerPoint presentation link: The History and Spirit of ICWA

This video “The History and Spirit of ICWA” provides juvenile and family courts with historical context of Native Americans and child welfare. The goals of this video is to provoke discussion and to further the court’s understanding of why it is critical to ask if there is any Native American heritage at every hearing even if you know the family history. 

Click here to watch "Unseen Tears: The Impact of Native American Residential Boarding Schools in Western New York."

NCJFCJ will be posting more videos and publishing a technical assistance bulletin to provide juvenile and family courts with practice recommendations and tools to improve compliance with the letter of the ICWA as well as with the “spirit of ICWA” through services and supports (1). One of the most critical and ongoing steps is to develop respectful and authentic relationships with tribes to fully implement the ICWA and best serve Native children. For further information or technical assistance please contact NCJFCJ at caninfo@ncjfcj.org

(1) Following the “Spirit of ICWA” means providing culturally appropriate services to Native American families from non–federally recognized tribes within the juvenile dependency and delinquency systems. (More information is available from the California Administrative Office of the Courts at http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Tribal-FollowSpiritICWA.pdf

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