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Vol. 11, No. 2
February 2006

Working with American Indian Families

Note: in this issue the term “American Indian” is used interchangeably with “American Indian/Alaska Native” solely for the purposes of brevity.

Despite their amazing cultural variety, all American Indians have one thing in common: a history of astounding resiliency.

Today, after centuries of violence, racism, and adversity, American Indian tribes are growing and continuing as unique, vibrant cultures. Many Indian families are thriving, healthy, and strong. They are nurturing their ancient ways, building their economies, strengthening their communities, and looking to the future with optimism and hope.

Yet oppression has left its mark. Many people believe that Indians’ history of discrimination and forced assimilation is the true reason for the alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague some Indian families (Gover, 2000).

Whatever their cause, problems such as these can make it hard for some Indian families to ensure the safety and well-being of their children. To work successfully with Indian families in crisis, child welfare workers must keep several things in mind.

First, they must understand that many Indians are citizens not only of the U.S. but also of their own tribes, which are distinct sovereign entities. Because of this, child welfare practice with many Native people is governed by the Indian and Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law with which all child welfare workers must comply.

Child welfare workers must also understand that our government’s past efforts to break up Indian families and destroy Native culture casts a terrible shadow over their work. Though it goes back many years, this history extends to the very recent past and directly involves child welfare agencies.

As recently as the 1970s even the Child Welfare League of America, which sets standards for child welfare practice in the U.S., participated in a program that promoted the adoption of Indian children by non-Native families. Through CWLA’s involvement thousands of Indian children grew up alienated from their families and their cultures. (In 2001 CWLA formally apologized to Native people for its “hurtful, biased, and disgraceful” actions.)

Let us be clear: many child welfare organizations have acted in ways that hurt Indian families. We highlight this part of CWLA’s history because it illustrates how ignorance and societal values can lead astray even the most respected, best qualified, and best intentioned people.

They say that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. If this is true, unless they make a special effort to learn about, partner with, and support American Indian children and their tribes, child welfare workers today are probably still at serious risk of misunderstanding and harming Native families.

To help you guard against the mistakes of the past and prepare for successful partnerships with American Indian families, this issue of Practice Notes provides a brief overview of events that have impacted Native families, a discussion of Indian culture, suggestions for complying with ICWA, and more.


A History We All Should Know

American Indians in North Carolina

Cultural Considerations for Practice with Native Americans

The Voices of Zak's Aunt and Uncle: An Indian Family Speaks about ICWA

Implementing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978

Key Points from this Issue

References for this Issue

Click here to read or print the entire issue as a pdf file

Additional resources related to this topic:

  • Issue Brief on Tribal-State Relations. The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information has released a new publication on how States and Tribes can work together more effectively to protect the safety, permanency, and well-being of American Indian/Alaska Native children.  The issue brief, Tribal-State Relations, examines:
    • Factors affecting Tribal-State relations in child welfare Components of successful Tribal-State relations
    • Examples of promising practices in Tribal-State relations
    This issue brief is available on the Clearinghouse website or through the Children’s Bureau website This issue brief was developed in partnership with the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

  • Training Matters, vol. 7, no. 2 original. <>
  • SAMHSA Report on Substance Use and Disorders Among Native Americans. Substance Use and Substance Disorders among American Indians and Alaska Natives shows that 60.8 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives and 65.8 percent of other racial groups used alcohol in the past year, that 10.7 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives reported having a past-year alcohol use disorder compared with 7.6 percent of other racial groups and that 5.0 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives had a past-year illicit drug use disorder compared with 2.9 percent of other racial groups. American Indians and Alaska Natives also had higher rates than members of other racial groups for past-year marijuana use (13.5 percent vs. 10.6 percent), cocaine use (3.5 percent vs. 2.4 percent), and disorders involving hallucinogen use (2.7 percent vs. 1.7 percent). However, rates of past-year heroin use and past-year nonmedical use of pain relievers, tranquilizers, and sedatives were similar for American Indians and Alaska Natives and members of other racial groups. All findings are annual averages based on combined 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) data. The NSDUH Report is published periodically by the Office of Applied Studies. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is an annual survey sponsored by SAMHSA. The survey collects data by administering questionnaires to a representative sample of the population through face-to-face interviews at their place of residence.
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  • Toolkit for Assessing Your Agency’s Cultural Competency. A toolkit for the self-assessment of agency cultural competency has been developed by the El Paso County, CO, Greenbook Initiative. The toolkit, which can be downloaded for free, is a comprehensive collection of surveys, interviews, facility checklists, and document reviews, as well as reports from two sites where the toolkit was piloted. The toolkit allows agencies to survey staff, volunteers, and clients regarding their perceptions and experiences with agency policies. It also directs agencies to examine their mission statement, policies, procedures, outreach, communications, and physical facilities with a view toward cultural competency.
    You can find it at <>