Abstract: The Journey of American Indian and Alaskan Native Youth through Foster Care: The Effect of State Icwa Statutes (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

The Journey of American Indian and Alaskan Native Youth through Foster Care: The Effect of State Icwa Statutes

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Claudette Grinnell-Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK
Allison Dunnigan, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Lily E. DeFrank, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, OK

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA: Pub.L. 95-608) was passed as an initial attempt to ameliorate the damage caused by decades of systemic removal of as many as 40% of American Indian and Alaskan Native children from their homes to placements with non-Native families by prioritizing family preservation of American Indian and Alaskan Native tribal families. As a means of demonstrating partnership to these ideals, some states have legislated state ICWA statutes (SICWAs), committing to the protection of Indian children through tribal and state government collaboration. It is widely believed that such statutes not only reflect the spirit of ICWA but also result in its end goals, which is to preserve Native families together and, if removal is necessary, to keep family connection and/or tribal connection as a central goal. No examination of the effectiveness of SICWAs on the various implementation components of ICWA with American Indian and Alaskan Native foster youth, however, has been undertaken to date.

This study examines whether there are differences in the number of children between SICWA and non-SICWA states in various aspects of child entry, case practice, and exit from foster care.


A population cohort of 249,006 youth entering foster care in 2012 linked through 2016 was developed from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). 10,306 youth are identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native. Approximately one third (n=3559) are in states with a SICWA.

A policy scan of state legislation identified eight states with some form of SICWA. A variable derived from this information was added to the AFCARS dataset. Bivariate analyses were completed in SAS (v9.4) to highlight relationships between demographic variables, adoption disruption history, reasons for removal, current placement, case goal, and exit reason.


Reasons for removal with higher percentages in SICWA states include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and incarceration; neglect, parental alcohol use, child drug and alcohol use, child behavior problems, and inability to cope were higher in non-SICWA states. Youths in SICWA states were more likely to be currently placed in relative foster care and trial home visits, while non-SICWA youth were more likely to be in pre-adoptive placements, institutions, or be runaways. However, non-SICWA youths were more likely to have reunification or adoption as a case goal.

Administratively, there were lower percentages of “unable to determine” responses in SICWA states. Unfortunately, nearly 30% of all SICWA youths had “Not yet established” as a case goal, which may explain lower percentages of reunification goals. However, more SICWA youths exited the system through agency transfer, which may mean transfer to tribal courts as tribal cases are not found in AFCARS.


While conclusions about ICWA must be tentatively drawn because not every Native youth identified in AFCARS is ICWA eligible, findings yield both promise in terms of supporting the goals of ICWA and areas of improvement, particularly around expediting case goals and likely challenges in inter-agency communication. Further research is needed to understand tribal child welfare practice, particularly engagement with state agencies.