The Indian Child Welfare Act
By Paul Ongtooguk
One of the most important features of any government is to look after the well being of its children. The Indian Child Welfare Act is directly related to looking after Native children.
Prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act, the guidelines used by the State to identify homes for foster or adopted Alaska Native children were unacceptable. The guidelines included descriptions of floor space, number of people per square foot, cash income of parents, access to education and a diet that social worker recognized and found acceptable. By these measures many Alaska Native families did not qualify to provide foster or adoptive care. Added to these physical and social requirements was the context of the federal government policy of assimilation. One tool to promote assimilation was the ability and, in some cases, preference to place Native children with 'white' families.
So without lawyers to defend them Native children were placed and/or adopted into white families. In many cases they were at risk of being taken away from their communities to cities and other states. In most cases these placements and adoptions happened without the knowledge or consent of the tribe.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in response to this situation. After many legislative hearings a new set of federal guidelines was developed. A key feature is that when a Native child is going to be removed from a tribal member's family, the tribe must be notified in a timely manner. The Act also established an order of preferred homes for Native children to better ensure cultural integrity:1) with the extended family; 2) within the community; 3) within the tribe or the region; 4) within a shared culture; 5) with a Native family from a non shared culture; and 6) with a non Native family.
The Indian Child Welfare Act reinforced the principle that foster care and adoption by non tribal members are not valid without the consent of the tribe. In other words, a child may be adopted out of a family but not out of a tribe. This Act is an important, clear acknowledgement of the existence of the tribe now and in the future. This legislation protects the basic rights of American Indian and Alaska Native societies to provide for the well being of their children.