European contact initiated many dramatic changes to the structure of American Indian communities and families.  Since this time Native people have been faced with the challenge of navigating new social dynamics and cultural paradigms to preserve and protect their culture and land for future generations.  Historically, tribal communities had no need for the type of child welfare systems that exist in mainstream society today.  Traditional beliefs, customs and values about child rearing and protection provided the infrastructure of traditional American Indian/Alaska Native child welfare.

Generations of government policies have caused Native American families to lose their children to the boarding school system, the foster care system, and adoption.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs was instrumental in facilitating the adoption of hundreds of Indian children through the "Indian Adoption Project" in the 1950s and 1960s.  This historical trauma deeply impacted Native families the repercussions of which are still being manifested throughout all levels of Indian society.  Today many tribes have strong negative feelings about foster care and adoption as it is understood by mainstream culture's definition.

In spite of the negative perception of 'mainstream' adoption, historically and traditionally, adoption was commonly practiced in most tribal communities facilitated by custom and ceremony.  There is no evidence that tribes practiced termination of parental rights.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978 to protect the interests of Indian children, families, and tribes.  While it has been thirty five years since the passage of the ICWA, tribes still struggle with the application of this legislation at state and federal levels.  Many issues arise surrounding the removal of tribal children and their placement in non-Indian homes.  Pressure, from State and County Social Services department, to create long-term permanent plans that require the termination of parental rights raise a whole host of issues regarding the welfare of tribal children.  Often times, termination of parental rights means severing all ties the child might have to extended family and possibly to the tribe at large.

Currently, tribes are working with the State to develop creative ways to achieve safety, permanence and well-being for all tribal children in care.

Many tribes are revaluating State administered child welfare programs in light of traditional cultural teachings and values.  Many hope to reclaim traditional/customary adoption practices which will provide a culturally appropriate solution to many of the aforementioned concerns.  In a customary adoption, tribes can meet the permanency needs of their children while honoring their own tribal values and beliefs.  More tribes are considering a return to  tradition through the use of customary adoption in their child welfare systems.  Some tribes have developed or are developing traditional tribal courts where custom and tradition are used to address the needs of children and families in a manner which better reflects the tribe's beliefs about the needs of children and families and healing modalities. For those tribes where child protection issues are addressed in the state court, they are looking to create or expand laws which enable collaboration between  the state and the tribe to creatively address the needs of tribal children.

Traditional ideals serve as the foundation for a new approach to tribal child welfare and working at state and local levels:

•  Children are the sacred responsibility of the tribe;

•  Children cannot protect themselves and depend on adults to protect them, their rights, and their resources;

•  A tribe has an obligation to its people to formulate its child welfare, permanency, and adoption policies based on its historical, customary, and current unique cultural and/or civil relationships.

•  American Indian tribes hold a unique government-to-government relationship with the states and federal government.

•  One of the tribe's basic sovereign rights is the right to decide the custody of its children and that, as part of its sovereign right, a tribe has the power and jurisdiction to articulate through tribal law its own customary practices concerning child custody and to create law based on its historical, customary, and current unique cultural interpretations of civil relationships.

While it is the hope that every child who enters the foster care system may safely return home, there are times when parents are unable to successfully address the issues which brought them to the attention of children's services and the children cannot return to their parent's care.  It is at these times that Tribes must determine the best long-term plan for their tribal child.

Many tribes in California select guardianship as the long-term plan for the tribal child.  Many caregivers are dedicated to the child and will care for the child as long as necessary, but do not want to adopt.  Often tribes and individual caregivers do not want to discount the parents, even when they are struggling with issues that prevent them from safely parenting their children.  Unfortunately, there is often a great deal of pressure from the Child Welfare System to permanently place children, especially those who are very young, in adoptive placements and terminate parental rights.

When addressing permanency issues there are a variety of options available to tribes:

•  Transfer the case to tribal court

•  For those cases which remain in the state court:

  Conventional Adoption which requires the termination of parental rights

  Tribal Customary Adoption that is done through the tribe's custom and tradition and does not require the termination of parental rights


  Long-term foster care or another long-term permanent plan


Tribal Customary Adoption (TCA) was signed into law in 2009.  It provides tribes with an OPTION for their tribal children when looking at long-term placement.  No tribe shall be forced to choose TCA as a long-term plan for the child.  Each tribe must decide for itself what the best long-term plan is for that child and act accordingly.

TCA allows tribes to develop the tribal customary adoption order, which modifies the parents' rights while keeping the child's connection to the tribe intact.  Each tribe that chooses TCA creates a unique plan for that child and family.  Tribal customary adoption orders specify how the parents' rights will be modified, what the adoptive parents must do to keep the child connected to the tribe, helps to ensure that the child's right to inherit from the biological parent remains intact, and how that child is to remain in contact with people significant to his/her life.  This process honors the needs of the child for a safe and secure environment and also honors the tribe by recognizing the important role the tribal community plays in the traditional and cultural education and upbringing of its members.