Even after passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978, Indian children (i.e. American Indian and Alaskan Native) are still over-represented in the American foster care system. Evaluating the impacts of ICWA in national foster care data (AFCARS), however, is complicated by data collection practices that treat “Indian” status as race and not as tribal citizenship (the threshold for ICWA eligibility under statute). ICWA-protectable Indian children cannot be directly identified; subsequently ICWA practices cannot be directly evaluated. However, ICWA compliance may be present in AFCARS as a latent construct.
I used latent profile analysis (LPA) to estimate the number of Indian children in ICWA-compliant placements by generating a typology of placement practices known to indicate ICWA compliance such as placement preferences, length of stay, number of placements, and permanency goals. ICWA-protectable children should be placed with kin or other Indian caregivers; have reunification as a permanency goal; be less likely to be adopted; and have shorter, stable stays. Based on proximity to tribal communities, I hypothesize that children are more likely to be in ICWA-compliant placements if they live in a state with its own ICWA statute and have a federally recognized tribe (FRT) within their state.
This secondary analysis examined all 31,793 children (55% Indian alone, 45% two or more races) identified in AFCARS FFY 2015 as Indian. The LPA was performed using MPlus 8.4 with 100 random starts and 10 optimizations. The final model had an entropy value of .945. Presence of a state ICWA statute, presence of an FRT, and child race status (Indian alone or 2+ races) were used to validate profiles.
A four-profile solution emerged, of which one profile indicated ICWA compliance (N=10406). These children were younger, had shorter stays, were more likely to have reunification as a permanency goal, and resided in relative foster care. None were placed with non-Indian non-kin.
Unfortunately, the largest profile (n=10886) consisted of young children in non-kin (usually non-Indian) placements with increased likelihood for adoption. The last two profiles consisted of older Indian children either in stable (usually non-Indian) placements (n=8097), or with volatile placement histories with non-Indian carers (n=1594). State ICWA statutes predicted membership in the ICWA and stable older child profiles, as did presence of an FRT in the state. When Indian-alone or 2+ race demographics were considered, fewer children with two or more races were in the probable ICWA compliance profile in states without ICWA statutes, possibly indicating diligent Indian child identification in states with ICWA statutes.
While nothing can be confirmed about ICWA compliance due to tribal citizen identification challenges, findings demonstrate the need for data on ICWA compliance to assure Indian children are staying in contact with their tribes and that tribal sovereignty is respected. Results further indicate that state ICWA statutes may improve ICWA practice, but that older Indian children are less likely to be in identity-reinforcing placements when they developmentally need them most.