• Vevila Hussey, MSW

Early Origins of Indian Child Welfare Have Lasting Impacts: Disproportionality

In order to understand the depth of the problem of disproportionality in child welfare today in which Native American children and families are disproportionately represented, it is important to acknowledge the origins of Indian child welfare at the policy level. Our policies have impacts that impact lives for generations. This is just a snapshot of a few policies and practices that have been harmful.

Boarding Schools

From the late nineteenth century well into the twentieth, federal policy toward Native Americans was one of forced assimilation. The removal of Native American children from their homes was normalized through the Dawes Act of 1887 and the mass removal and placement of Native children into boarding schools occurred. Boarding schools punished traditional culture as a lifestyle or behavior harshly. Children’s hair was cut, and tribal languages were not allowed to be spoken. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in boarding schools is widely documented. The mass assimilation programs produced young adults that were victims of abuse and neglect, and without access to the cultural practices, resources, or traditional supports to support their healing or reintegration into the community.

Adults in Native communities today often have parents and grandparents who fell victim to boarding schools.

Indian Adoption Project

In the 1930s, there was more acceptance of self-determination as a solution to the “Indian problem,” but “Indian child removal” continued as a solution. Jacobs, the author of “Remembering the Forgotten Child”[1], reported that the Indian Adoption Project (IAP), exuberantly promoted the adoption of Native American children, connecting state agencies with adoptive families. It “cultivated the demand for adoptable Indian children,” with use of the media. The IAP “sought to increase the supply” of Native American children with social worker and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) relationships. Reportedly, social workers encouraged Native American mothers to relinquish their infants. Native American children were removed from their families and communities with preferences of the nuclear family model, often reporting poverty as neglect, with “narratives of Indian family dysfunction.” The IAP continued to promote the removal of Native American children by lobbying for easier adoption of Native children and by taking on the jurisdiction of tribal courts (Nan).

Modern Times

This history of these efforts eventually resulted in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, thanks to the efforts of the civil rights movement. However, even today there are attacks of the ICWA by pro-adoption organizations. Federal goals that include swift permanency of tribal children in the system, despite their best intentions, often conflict with tribal definitions of permanency. Tribal children having access to traditional culture and tribal membership are key to the very survival and existence of tribes, which were almost decimated as a result of early contacts between Euro-American settlers and young United States policies.

While many counties today have expressed commitment to the ICWA, and desire partnership with tribes, we have much work to do to correct the current and historical policy errors that lead to disproportionality.

For strategies for partnership with both government and tribal organizations, contact Vevila Hussey, MSW at


[1] Tani, Karen. The Long History of the Indian Child Welfare Act, JOTWELL (November 5, 2013). (Reviewing Margaret D. Jacobs, “Remembering the Forgotten Child”: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, 37 American Indian Quarterly 136 (Winter/Spring 2013)),

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