American Indian Children Overrepresented in Nation's Foster Care System, New Report Finds

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American Indian Children Overrepresented in Nation's Foster Care System, New Report Finds

American Indian and Alaskan Native children are overrepresented in the nation's foster care system at more than 1.6 times the expected level, according to a new report by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) and the national, nonpartisan Kids Are Waiting campaign, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Yet tribal governments are excluded from some of the largest sources of federal child welfare funding.

"Native American children make up a greater proportion of children in foster care than in the general population," said Bill Thorne, a member of the Pomo tribe, Utah Court of Appeals judge and member of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. "To make matters worse, tribes do not have direct access to federal child welfare dollars to help Native American children needing foster care, often resulting in removal not only from their families but also their culture."

The report, titled Time for Reform: A Matter of Justice for American Indian and Alaskan Native Children, found that nationally, American Indian and Alaskan Native children were reported to the state and found to be victims of child abuse and neglect at the rate of 16.5 per 1,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native children. This rate compares to 19.5 for African American children, 16.1 for Pacific Islander children, 10.8 for White children, and 10.7 for Hispanic children. Native American children are more likely than children of other races/ethnicities to be identified as victims of neglect (65.5%), and they are least likely to be identified as victims of physical abuse (7.3%).

Federal support for child welfare services in tribal communities is a patchwork of funding streams, most of which are discretionary and provides extremely limited levels of support. As a result, tribal governments have limited ability to provide services, and find themselves managing crises rather than responding to the core issues that put children at risk.

"Giving tribes direct access to federal child welfare resources is the most important thing the federal government can do to help American Indian and Alaskan Native children and families in crisis," said Terry L. Cross, Executive Director of NICWA and member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. "Providing more services within tribal communities will ensure that our children have safe, permanent homes and stay connected to their culture."

"The lack of adequate and reliable funding has been a barrier to tribes in responding to the needs of their children and families across the nation," said Marci McCoy-Roth, program officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Access to federal child welfare funding would help tribal governments establish a stable foundation of essential programs and ensure that tribal communities have the resources necessary to meet the needs of children and families in crisis."

The national, nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care recognized the unique ability tribal governments have to develop effective solutions for Native American children affected by child abuse and neglect and the need for more direct funding to support tribal child welfare efforts. The Pew Commission also noted the need to create greater balance between programs that fund services only after children have been removed from their families and programs that fund family preservation services, in order to help reduce the disproportionate number of tribal children in foster care.

The Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Act of 2007, introduced in Congress by Senator Max Baucus, recognizes the special needs of American Indian and Alaskan Native children in foster care. This bipartisan legislation would allow tribes direct access to federal foster care and adoption funds and would create accountability measures to ensure that tribes meet the needs of the children in their care. According to Senator Baucus, "This bill provides tribes with the ability to serve their children directly with culturally appropriate care and understanding."


States with Greatest Disproportionality of American Indian and Alaskan Native Children in State Foster Care
Percent of Native American Children in the General Child Population
Percent of Native American Children in Foster Care
North Dakota
South Dakota

*These data are drawn from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which provides information only on those American Indian/Alaskan Native children who self-identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native and are placed by state child welfare agencies in foster care. AFCARS data do not include American Indian/Alaskan Native children who receive foster care services from tribal children's programs. It is estimated that that approximately two-thirds of Native American children in foster care are placed by state child welfare agencies and one-third to 40 percent are placed in foster care by tribal authorities.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ASSOCIATION (NICWA): NICWA is a national nonprofit and the most comprehensive source of information on American Indian child welfare and works on behalf of Indian children and families. NICWA provides public policy, research, advocacy, information, training and community development services to a broad national audience, state child welfare agencies, and other organizations, agencies and professionals interested in the field of Indian child welfare. For more information visit

ABOUT THE KIDS ARE WAITING CAMPAIGN: Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now is a national, nonpartisan campaign dedicated to promoting foster care reform. Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts, an ever-growing number of local, state and national partners are working together so that our most vulnerable children don't spend their childhoods waiting in foster care for the families they deserve.

Note: The photo used on the front page of and on the report cover was provided by the National Indian Child Welfare Association. The children depicted are not affiliated with the foster care system.

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