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December/January 2024Vol. 24, No. 10Cultural Humility Can Support ICWA Implementation at State Child Welfare Agencies

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) (1978) established minimum federal safeguards for the removal and displacement of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children from their homes or tribes. ICWA requires that, when removal is unavoidable, AI/AN children be placed in foster or adoptive homes in AI/AN communities as often as possible (Williams et al., 2015).

Currently, 16 states have codified ICWA provisions into state law (in the aftermath of legal challenges to ICWA in 2019), and another 4 states have similar legislation pending as of September 2023 (Capacity Building Center for Tribes, 2023). All states, regardless of whether there are federally recognized tribes within their borders, are required to comply with ICWA. Failure to comply has many negative consequences for AI/AN families across the country, as well as adverse legal consequences for states, such as invalidation of court proceedings, disruption of foster care placement, voiding of final adoption orders, malpractice actions, and federal sanctions (van Straaten & Buchbinder, 2011).

By grounding collaboration in cultural humility, in which cultural knowledge and expertise, self-examination of biases, and mutual learning are prioritized, state and tribal agencies can improve their partnerships and help implement ICWA more effectively. To do this work, agencies can commit to the following:

  • Tailoring all communication and activities to the unique needs and culture of each tribal community
  • Honoring that tribal communities hold the knowledge of what is best for them and what they need for their children and families to thrive

Determining if ICWA Applies to a Case

ICWA applies when there is a child custody proceeding that involves an "Indian child," defined as an unmarried individual under the age of 18 who is either (1) a tribal member or (2) eligible for tribal membership and has a biological parent who is a tribal member (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021). (Note that ICWA does not apply to tribal families from non-federally recognized tribes.)

In all cases, caseworkers should assume that ICWA applies until they have enough information to determine the law is not relevant (Tribal Information Exchange, n.d.). Making such a determination requires state child welfare workers to be aware of ICWA and its provisions, ask the child’s family (immediate or extended) if they identify as AI/AN, and review documentation to know whether ICWA applies (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021).

Ensuring improved ICWA compliance at state child welfare agencies requires increased communication, which should start from a position of cultural humility, including the following (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021):

  • Training all staff on ICWA’s applicability, provisions, and requirements
  • Educating staff on how AI/AN communities have been affected by disproportionate numbers of tribal children being removed from their homes and the historical and generational effects of trauma and cultural repression
  • Prioritizing early communication with tribes to increase the likelihood that family will be identified and located
  • Recognizing that AI/AN individuals are found in all areas of the country (rural, suburban, and urban), not just on tribal reservation land
  • Understanding that communication styles and cultural norms may be different than those in non-tribal communities
  • Knowing that it is appropriate to ask questions about culture and racial identity, but it should be done respectfully (questions around race or ethnic identity should always be asked, never assumed based on a person’s appearance or whether the state has any federally recognized tribes)

Applying Cultural Humility When Partnering With Tribal Agencies

State agencies can take additional steps to build partnerships with tribes and promote quality services. These steps include the following (National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement, n.d.):

  • Ensure that caseworkers, supervisors, and managers on the state and local levels are educated about tribal nations in their state and the percentage of the state population that identifies as AI/AN.
  • Maintain a centralized, current list of names, addresses, and phone numbers of the tribes, tribal leaders, and tribal child welfare directors and staff.
  • Enhance policies and processes around communication between state and tribal child welfare staff and consistently collaborate with tribes at all opportunities (e.g., establish regular meetings between child welfare staff and tribal representatives, discuss how to share data on mutually important issues, brainstorm solutions for challenges such as recruitment of tribal foster and adoptive homes).
  • Working together with tribal partners, train all state child welfare staff in culturally competent practices, including learning from and collaborating with tribal partners in ways that recognize and honor tribal sovereignty, asking all families about racial backgrounds, building meaningful community relationships (such as those with tribal elders), and understanding the importance of familial relationships as a source of support­—all training and technical assistance must be grounded in an understanding of specific tribal communities’ cultural practices.

The following additional resources can help state agencies comply with ICWA requirements and partner with tribes and tribal communities in their regions:



Capacity Building Center for Tribes. (2023). Capacity Building Center for Tribes Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) resources for states and tribes.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2021). The Indian Child Welfare Act: A primer for child welfare professionals.

National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement. (n.d.). Approaches to collaboration: State-tribal partnerships.

Tribal Information Exchange. (n.d.). ICWA.

van Straaten, J., & Buchbinder, P. (2011). The Indian Child Welfare Act: Improving compliance through state-tribal coordination. Center for Court Innovation.

Williams, J. R., Maher, E. J., Tompkins, J., Killos, L. F., Arnell, J. W., Rosen, J. E., Mueller, C., Summers, A., Cain, S. M., Moon, M., McCauley, G., & Harris, L. (2015). A research and practice brief: Measuring compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Casey Family Programs.