Preserving connections

Best strategies for recruiting and retaining tribal foster families for American Indian and Alaska Native children

American Indian and Alaska Native children thrive with families that reflect their culture, especially if they need to be placed in out-of-home care. To preserve these connections, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) lays out preferred placements for out-of-home care when a child who meets the ICWA’s definition of an “Indian child” is not able to be safe at home.

ICWA requirements
Any child accepted for foster care or pre-adoptive placement must be placed:

These are the preferred placement options in order of priority:
(hover over the box below)



A member of the Indian child’s extended family



A foster home licensed, approved, or specified by the Indian child’s tribe



An Indian foster home licensed or approved by an authorized non-Indian licensing authority; or



An institution for children approved by an Indian tribe or operated by an Indian organization which has a program suitable to meet the Indian child’s needs. 25 U.S.C. 1915(b).

Note: An Indian child’s tribe can establish a different order of preference by resolution. ICWA also states preferred preferences for adoptions of American Indian/Alaska Native children. See 25 U.S.C. 1915(a)

Available national data summarized in a Casey report shows where American Indian children involved in child welfare currently reside. Only 17% of American Indian children in out-of-home care live with American Indian Caregivers.

Between 2014 and 2017, Casey Family Programs collaborated with 21 teams of tribal and state representatives to work together over a one-year period to recruit and retain more tribal homes for American Indian children to fulfill the intention of ICWA to preserve cultural connections. Below is a detailed look at the four essential strategy areas for effective recruitment and retention of ICWA-preferred caregivers.

There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.

– 25 U.S.C. 1901(3).

Infrastructure and Resources
Tribal and state agency infrastructure and resources are the foundation for successful collaborative recruitment and retention efforts. They include joint development and use of the following:

We really go the extra mile for American Indian families providing ICWA homes. We make sure that there are no barriers — we do home visits, help with children’s appointments, give a little extra handholding.

– Casey Tribal/State team Project Participant

Agency practices
Agency practices generate ideas and strategies and put a team’s recruitment and retention efforts into action. They include:

*Share information and resources with other human service departments about efforts to recruit tribal homes
**Include creation of monthly target recruitment numbers

Tribal-state teams need to listen and learn from each other — and then take action.

– Casey Tribal/State Team Project Participant

State and federal policy have a strong influence on agency and judicial practice in making ICWA-preferred placements for Indian children. Both agency policy and regulations can affect the ability to recruit and retain ICWA-preferred placements, and can help stakeholders understand why ICWA is the gold standard for social work practice. (See recent federal Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations.) Policy considerations include:

*Challenges include requirements of background checks, licensing regulations, state recognition of tribal homes, and the potential of case-by-case, non-safety waivers. Home Study Requirements

We brought families in from rural areas and went through the dual licensure process with them in a two-day period. They met licensing workers both for the tribe and for the state, lunch was provided, there were door prizes. It really helped them get through the process.

– Casey Tribal/State Team Project Participant

Advocacy is a set of actions to influence public awareness about an issue with the hopes of bringing about positive change. In this case, raising awareness about the importance of ICWA-preferred placement and strategies to achieve it can lead to better compliance with the law. Advocacy strategies include:

*Constituent voices include foster and adoptive youth, kinship caregivers and guardians, and foster/adoptive parents

Current foster parents are often the most effective recruiters. Use this valuable resource!

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