Child Welfare Research

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines


Ensuring the safety and security of children is a primary function of all cultures as children must be nurtured and cared for to ensure their future success. In addition, maintenance of familial links that allow the passing down of cultural traditions and stories is an important aspect of cultural preservation. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.

In 1978, the United States Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) which gave American Indian tribes specific rights to be involved in child welfare proceedings involving tribal children. The law was passed after a grassroots effort of Native elders and grandmothers traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for Indian children’s rights as an alarming number of native children were being removed from their homes both by public and private agencies. Prior to 1978, it was common for the local county welfare agencies to remove a native child whom they thought was being neglected from their home and place them in the child welfare system. For example, a child may be left with a close friend who is like an aunt, which in American Indian culture is a safe space where a child is cared for and loved; however, to a worker who has an Eurocentric value of safety, this situation may be perceived as abandonment. At the time ICWA was passed, 25% of Native children were being removed from their homes and were placed into foster care with white families and they often never returned to their family or their tribe. As a result, there was a significant loss of family, tradition, and culture within Native communities. American Indian children are still significantly over-represented in foster care in North Dakota.

Some of the ICWA requirements include: Notifying tribes when a native child comes into care through the state’s child welfare system, making every effort to keep the native family together, keeping the children connected to their American Indian culture, and ensuring the services being provided to the child are culturally appropriate. After ICWA was passed, no agencies were charged to ensure that states were following the federal requirements outlined by the law and that the law was properly instituted. Unfortunately, most tribal communities do not have the resources for well-staffed tribal social work agencies. In addition, there was not a framework that was created to ensure that local tribal communities, judicial courts, and county social workers were unified and working together to meet the ICWA requirements. Because of lack of information about how to carry out the law, resources, communication, and administrative support, the ICWA requirements were not being followed.

Over the last ten years, there have been few studies to examine whether states were following the guidelines of ICWA, however, there has never been a full-state assessment of ICWA compliance that looked at every American Indian child’s case. In 2012, the North Dakota Supreme Court put out a request for proposals for an evaluation of courts to see if and how North Dakota was following the law in the first statewide compliance audit of ICWA in the nation.

Melanie Sage, an Assistant Professor in the UND Social Work department, was granted the contract to conduct the statewide ICWA assessment of Indian child welfare court cases. She and her colleagues have assessed every native child’s hearing and court files and created a coding scheme based upon more than 100 different benchmarks to determine compliance. After reviewing over 130 children’s cases and compiling and assessing the data, the researchers found that North Dakota had a low rate of compliance in some areas, such as use of a qualified expert witness (QEW) on tribal parenting to participate in native children’s child welfare cases, and that there is a lack of American Indian foster parents or families who are designated by the tribe to provide foster care for Native children. State compliance is very high in some areas, such as providing information to parents about their rights to an attorney and notifying tribes about the hearings. Dr. Sage and her colleagues recommended that more foster family homes be developed in American Indian communities, and that the court, child welfare systems, and tribal systems work together toward continued awareness about ICWA to assist child welfare workers, judges and court personnel, and native leaders in following ICWA when making child welfare decisions. The Court Improvement Committee has taken several actions to support ICWA compliance efforts, including creation of a benchbook for judges, and specialized trainings throughout the state to educate judges and court personnel about ICWA.

Dr. Sage and her team continue to research Native child welfare cases and have worked with Casey Family Programs to develop a more intensive level of ICWA compliance assessment which takes into account not only court records, but also child welfare case files and court audio. The team is using the new compliance measures to assess child welfare cases of Native children in Ramsey County. The initial findings from the assessment were presented to court personnel, the county’s judge, guardian ad litems, and a district judge at the beginning of December.

Dr. Sage is glad that the conversation about ICWA is continuing and that the issues are being elevated as it is important to ensure the safety of native children and the need to preserve the tribal culture. Each year, she continues to present her research findings at the North Dakota Native American Training Institute Indian Child Welfare Conference, which brings people together who work in Indian child welfare. Additionally, she will present North Dakota’s work toward compliance at the National Indian Child Welfare Conference for the second time this April, and hopes our state’s efforts will be a catalyst for similar assessments in other states.

Children are the future. They are the lifeblood of a culture, and the only way a culture can be passed on from one generation to the next is if children are nurtured, safe, and taught the important lessons of their Elders. Compliance with ICWA helps to ensure the future of the American Indian culture in North Dakota and the safety of Native children.