• September 2019
  • Vol. 20, No. 7

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Considerations and Strategies for Engaging Tribes and Tribal Families

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States and Capacity Building Center for Tribes

Any child welfare professional can attest to the fact that engagement is both an art and a science. Engaging tribes and tribal families, as with any type of engagement, is all about relationships. When working with tribes, state child welfare agency leaders and managers need to begin by understanding the tribe's history, culture, and traditions and prepare their frontline staff to work effectively and respectfully with tribal families. 

Consider Historical Relationships and Respect the Sovereignty of Tribal Nations

As sovereign nations, tribes have a unique and complex relationship with county, state, and federal agencies. It is important to understand a tribe's historical relationship with government agencies. If these relationships have been strained in the past, that may affect the agency's relationship with the tribe and a child welfare worker's interaction with tribal families. To honor the past and pave a way forward, the following steps are important for child welfare agencies:

  • Understand historical and intergenerational trauma and its effects. Even when the trauma is generations in the past, historical trauma has a very real effect on the way tribes and tribal families relate to those outside the tribe. This type of trauma impacts each tribe differently.
  • Ensure that staff at all levels are familiar with the Indian Child Welfare Act when working with tribal families, the tribal child welfare agency, and the tribal court. Learn more about the Indian Child Welfare Act at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/diverse-populations/americanindian/icwa/.

Pay Special Attention to the Tribe's Culture and Traditions

Tribes have rich and distinct cultures steeped in generations of traditions. When working with tribes, one size does not fit all. Child welfare agencies must do their homework. Take the time to understand the tribe's culture, traditions, and tribal history.

  • Recognize that the relationship between one tribe and a government agency may not be the same as another tribe. Take the time to understand the unique story and history of each tribe
  • When invited to do so, learn the stories of the tribe. Listening to the stories a tribe passes down from generation to generation offers a glimpse of the rich tapestry of the tribe.

Ensure There Is a Shared Understanding

A shared understanding is developed from a process of inquiry. Questions that begin with, "how do you define," "what do you call," or "what do you mean by" help ensure there is a shared understanding. Examples of important questions to ask include the following:

  • How does the tribe define family? Is the definition narrow (immediate blood relatives), or is the definition broad (immediate and extended blood relatives)? Is the familial relationship defined by cultural norms?
  • How do tribal traditions directly impact children, youth, and families? 
  • How can the agency assist and provide services that support children, youth, and families?

Prepare Staff to Work With Tribal Families

Training for frontline staff who work with tribal families should include the information above and a reminder that each tribal family has a unique history and brings a unique perspective to the table. Each family's experience within the tribal nation, the tribal community, and their family shapes who they are and how they view the world.

Prepare child welfare staff to engage effectively with tribal families by providing training, coaching, and ongoing supervision and support. Below are some important strategies and reminders for frontline staff.

  • Move at the pace of the family. Remember that people tell their stories at their own pace. What may seem tangential might be of critical importance in understanding the culture of the family.
  • Remind staff to acknowledge what they don't know. Asking questions is not indicative of a lack of knowledge but rather shows a desire for knowledge.
  • Encourage staff to take time to understand the family's unique lens. Answer questions with honesty and transparency, even if the answer is "I don't know."
  • Embrace cultural humility, an ongoing process of self-exploration and self-critique, and a willingness to learn from others. This means entering a relationship with another person with the intention of honoring the person's beliefs, customs, and values.

Child welfare agencies honor tribes and tribal families by establishing trust and building positive relationships. Building relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.

Additional Resources

Capacity Building Center for States: Come Together: Partnering With Stakeholders for Better Strategic Planning (https://cbexpress.acf.hhs.gov/index.cfm?event=website.viewArticles&issueid=204&articleID=5298&keywords=tribal)

Capacity Building Center for Tribes: Building an Effective Tribal-State Child Welfare Partnership (http://collaboration.tribalinformationexchange.org/)

Capacity Building Center for Tribes: Family Assessment: Understanding Bias (https://products.tribalinformationexchange.org/familyassessment/bias/story_html5.html)

Capacity Building Center for Tribes: Genetic Memory: How Trauma Can Change DNA (https://www.tribalinformationexchange.org/files/products/geneticmemory)

National Indian Child Welfare Association: Tribal Best Practices (https://www.nicwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Fam-Engagement-Toolkit-2018.pdf)

National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment: Diligent Recruitment Planning Tool for Tribes (http://www.nrcdr.org/_assets/files/NRCDR-org/dr-navigator-tribal-supplement.pdf)

National Resource Center for Diligent Recruitment: Recruiting Families for Native American Children: Strengthening Partnerships for Success (http://www.nrcdr.org/_assets/files/NRCDR-org/recruiting-families-for-native-american-children.pdf)

"Training Child Welfare Workers From an Intersectional Cultural Humility Perspective: A Paradigm Shift," by Robert Ortega and Kathleen Faller (Child Welfare, 90) (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224845530_Training_Child_Welfare_Workers_from_an_Intersectional_Cultural_Humility_Perspective_A_Paradigm_Shift)


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