National Child Welfare Association

NPR Investigation Draws Attention to the Over-Representation of American Indian and Alaska Native Children in the Foster Care System


DavidSimmons David Simmons Email

Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

(503) 222-4044, ext. 119

On October 25-27, 2011, National Public Radio (NPR) released a series of stories focusing on Native foster children and families in South Dakota, “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families.” The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) was approached several months ago by NPR, and provided considerable information to the journalists, including the history of Indian child welfare, advice on how to report on the topic of Native foster children and disproportionality, and the perspectives to consider.

While we applaud NPR’s considerable attention to this significantly underreported issue, we are disappointed that the strengths of tribally-administered foster care programs were not explored, the efforts of positive tribal/state collaborations were not mentioned, and the pervasiveness of these problems nationally—the removal of Native children under suspicious circumstances and the existence of licensed Native foster homes who have never had children placed with them—was not addressed. In a follow-up story on Monday, October 31, 2011, Terry Cross, NICWA’s Executive Director, spoke on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the larger story, filling in these important aspects.

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, NICWA has worked with tribal and state child welfare workers and leaders across the country to collaboratively address their state’s over-representation of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children in the foster care system. Tribal leaders and tribal child welfare workers know that compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has not been achieved and tribally-administered services are not resourced and supported commensurate with state funded-services—to the detriment of families whose lives have been already been impacted by poverty, historical trauma, and substance abuse. Further, it is the experience of Native families that, in many places, getting states to comply with the placement preferences in ICWA is an uphill battle and yet, qualified family members are passed over by state courts to place AI/AN children with non-Native strangers.

Since the series was released, NICWA has had many requests from concerned and outraged people, both Native and non-Native asking NICWA, the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of AI/AN children: “What can I do?”

How You Can Help: Five suggestions from the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA)

  1. Question your state’s child welfare agency about their foster care statistics—do you feel they are accurate? Ask where and how their data is collected.
  2. Send your name and contact information to if you have a personal story of Native children being removed from your family under suspicious circumstances or if you are a licensed foster home for Native children but have yet to have children placed with you. Please make sure to share details about your location and reference dates of significant events. Your story will remain anonymous. NICWA will compile the stories (anonymously) we receive to raise awareness that these issues are pervasive in tribal communities throughout the country. Encourage others you know to share their stories too.
  3. Visit the NICWA website at to learn more about the issues facing Native children, families, and communities.
  4. Become a member of NICWA to obtain information, policy alerts, and participate in member-only conference calls to stay informed about the disproportionate representation of American Indian and Alaska Native children in state foster care and to advocate for solutions that keep Native children in their homes and communities.
  5. Donate time or money to NICWA to support Indian child welfare issues and keep NICWA’s public policy work and child welfare trainings strong.

Related Links

NPR Series
Listen to the NPR series “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families.”

Listen to Terry Cross on NPR's Talk of the Nation, October 31, 2011

Additional Media Coverage
"NPR Investigation Reveals How the Foster Care System Steals Indian Children From Their Families" Indian Country Today, November 4, 2011

"Report paints 'An Unsettling Profile' of Native Americans in Multnomah County"
The Oregonian, November 2, 2011

"Number of American Indian children in foster care worries tribal leaders"
Minnesota Public Radio, November 30, 2011

"US officials plan South Dakota summit on Indian foster care"
Rapid City Journal, December 19, 2011

National Response
National Congress of American Indians Resolution: "Ensuring Compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Protection of Tribal Nations Children" (PDF)
Passed by NCAI on November 4, 2011

NICWA Resources
A "Mission Not Impossible" Understanding and Reducing Disparities and Disproportionality (PDF)
October 2011, Terry L. Cross, MSW, LCSW, ACSW

Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Compliance: Frequently Asked Questions