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Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Findings

Tribal child welfare programs’ models for providing foster care services were found to range across a wide spectrum. A number of programs provided a full array of services that included not only placement but also foster home recruitment; licensing and training of foster parents; and oversight of foster children and foster homes. Other programs offered relative and kinship placement and arranged for guardianships but did not have a formal foster care program. The foster care services of some tribes consisted solely of collaboration with the states or counties in order to identify potential family placements, while others without a formal foster care program were still able to provide homes when emergency removals of children required overnight or short-term placements. Whatever their capacity to provide foster care services on-reservation or within the tribal community, the majority of tribal child welfare programs were found to play an important role in collaborating with state and county child welfare departments in order to identify family and kinship placements for children entering these nontribal systems.

There has to be a real pointed and concerted effort in going into the homes and being able to relate to these parents just what is good family practice; what is wholesome, healthy thinking, living. It’s a continued, regular problem that a lot of the Native Americans have lost their sense of spirituality and connectedness to what, perhaps, once they did have and that has created a lot of havoc for children to have lost being in touch with their roots, being in touch with their practices or the way that they view their spirituality.

Community Partner

The foundational philosophy, attitude, and practice approach of tribal child welfare programs discussed in the previous section was infused into tribal foster care work. A strong commitment to do whatever it took to help tribal foster children and foster parents drove the work of program staff. Programs saw it as vitally important to keep children close to family and tribal community and typically went to great lengths to place Native children with relatives or in Native foster homes. Underlying workers’ efforts was a deeply held belief that children must not be lost to their families and tribes, and that they needed to be assisted in maintaining their connections to the tribal culture and its traditions. Supporting family members in caring for their relative children was seen as critical by programs. Tribal workers also made an effort to see that foster children remained connected to birth parents to the greatest extent possible and encouraged foster parents to play a part in this process.

Tribal foster care services were seen as vital by members of tribal communities (including tribal child welfare workers), who frequently related that the needs of tribal children and foster parents were not being met by states and counties. However, a number of tribal representatives perceived that the states or counties with which they worked did not trust that tribes could identify safe and appropriate placements, administer foster care programs, or properly manage foster care funding. In these cases, the states/counties were thought of as frequently not approving of or supporting foster care placements arranged by the tribe and/or as putting up barriers to tribes running their own programs.

A recurring theme across interviews was that tribes and tribal courts were reluctant to terminate parental rights, that they tried to avoid adoptions, and might, instead, prefer guardianships or long-term kinship foster care arrangement as a means to keep birth parents’ rights intact. One participant stated, “Our tribe does not do severance of parental rights or outside adoptions to nonfamily members, so we do preserve the family in that way.” Overall, tribes appeared to be supportive of adoptions by family or other tribal members but were generally not supportive of children being adopted into non-Native homes and, in some cases, even Native homes that were from different tribes. However, tribal workers related that they could not always prevent these non-Native and nontribal-specific adoptions, especially when they occurred in state courts. Other tribes used variations on adoptions that sought to sustain parents’ relationships with their children and had tribal codes that supported this. Among survey respondents, 38% indicated that they need T/TA around permanency options for children and families, including adoption, guardianship, and customary/cultural adoption, and 41% have a critical need for T/TA regarding in-home services such as placement prevention and post-reunification services.

Recently, several tribes have implemented customary adoption, which is a term used to refer to adoptions in tribal courts that do not terminate parental rights, and/or added this to their tribal codes. Other tribes shared that they were considering using customary adoptions,especially because they felt that a tribe could do customary adoptions without severing parents’ rights. Still other tribes used guardianship as their permanency option. However, tribal workers also expressed a concern that a customary adoption might not allow adoptive parents to receive adoption subsidies available to adoptive parents who went through state courts.  Although the Children’s Bureau has stated in their policy briefs that customary adoption should be considered as equivalent to “typical adoption” when considering adoption support, some tribes have found that particular states or counties are reluctant to translate this policy into practice.

We don’t do very many adoptions . . . our tribal code is a little bit different than other tribal codes. Under some circumstances with parental consent, there can be an adoption without termination of parental rights. . . . Frequently, when that happens, it’s another family member that’s doing the adoption and the parent permanently gives up custody but still retains some visitation rights of some sort.

–Tribal Court Judge

A number of foster care providers who were interviewed for this needs assessment had moved from being kinship providers to adopting their relative foster children through either the tribal or state courts. In general, regardless of the court through which the adoption was finalized, the majority of individuals felt the process had gone smoothly. Some found that their tribes were able to continue to provide some post-adoption services for their children and for them. In addition, tribal adoptive parents related that the tribal child welfare program was able to inform them of available adoption subsidies that state/county workers had not disclosed.

Foster Care Funding

As in other areas of tribal child welfare programming, funding for program operations and worker salaries; foster home recruitment; and foster parent subsidies were described as “inadequate.” Relative and kinship foster care providers seem to bear the brunt of this lack of financial resources. A large number of tribal foster care placements are with family members, and the kinship foster care subsidy offered by most states is often just more than $200 per month per child. Although tribes often provide some assistance with items such as clothing, food, and school supplies, the financial resources of tribal foster care providers remain strained when caring for relative children. In this needs assessment, tribal foster parents were often found to be providing for many of the needs of their foster children out of their own pockets. Yet, consistent with cultural values, these individuals stated that they did so willingly as part of fulfilling a responsibility to family, while identifying that other members of the tribal community were worse off and needed scarce tribal resources more than they did. However, tribal foster parents felt that states and counties often took advantage of tribal people’s willingness to sacrifice and care for relative children and perceived that these departments felt they had no obligation to assist the tribe financially.

The state felt like, because it’s a tribal member and tribal children, that they should not assist financially like they would with any others. . . . How could you say, because we are Native, and that she’s coming home, that this tribe should be responsible for solely. . . . I mean, my people have stepped up. They’ve held as much as they can, but that doesn’t let you off the hook, especially with the background and some of the damage that you participated in making possible with these children.

Tribal Child Welfare Family

Some tribal foster parents related that they were offered compensation by state or county departments, but then seemed to fall through the cracks and never receive reimbursement. Several of these foster parents found that straightening out the nonpayment involved lengthy waits and required them to fill out a great deal of paperwork. Still other foster parents simply provided care without compensation, as an interviewee related, “I do take care of a little nephew . . . he’s been with me since he was three. The only thing with him is, I don’t receive any type of assistance for him or anything.” Another foster parentshared a burdensome expectation for receiving compensation, “When we started fostering, they told us if we wanted help we had to take the parents to court. I’m not paying for all that, so we just did it out of our own pocket.”

Tribal foster parents frequently recounted that they believed that state child welfare departments liked relative providers because the departments would not have to pay for medical, mental health, and other needs of the foster children. Tribal foster parents also relied regularly on Medicaid and other state children’s health programs for their children’s medical needs, and some were also able to access tribal-run behavioral health programs for assessment, counseling, and mental health treatment. Most tribal programs appeared to be willing to give unhesitatingly in order to assist foster parents. However, these programs often had few resources to offer, especially in the form of cash assistance.

When considering the placement of children, tribal foster care programs must often determine which entity has funding available to support the placement. For example, if a child is placed by a tribe, the tribe must pay foster parents; if placed by the state or county, funding may be available from them. However, with state/county placements, tribal foster parents must also be able to meet state licensing criteria, something tribal foster parents may find difficult or may be unwilling to do (see additional discussion below).

Foster Parent Recruitment, Licensing, and Training

Most tribes were actively involved in foster home recruitment, although in practice this might be more accurately described as identification and preparation of relative and kinship placements. Despite the high percentage of tribal foster homes that were caring for relative children, tribal programs ideally strove to have homes that could provide emergency placements and accommodate nonrelative children in longer-term placements. Several tribes responding to this needs assessment identified that they have an adequate number of tribal foster homes, while the majority saw the need for a good number of additional homes. The latter group of tribes shared that they were engaged in ongoing efforts to recruit these homes yet were often hampered in their efforts by a lack of funding that could support the hiring of a foster home recruiter.

Unfortunately, what ends up happening is one person may qualify to be a foster parent, but their spouse or their partner may not . . . we run into those situations all the time, and it’s really hard to recruit.

Tribal Child Welfare Worker


Recruiting Native foster homes was considered easier if potential foster parents had the ability to be licensed and overseen by the tribe. Most tribal foster parents, however, continue to be licensed by a state or county entity. Some states cannot place a child in a tribally licensed foster home unless the foster care provider is also licensed by the state; other tribes are able to do joint licensing in conjunction with the state or use a licensed foster care agency to do the licensing. Several tribes have developed their own licensing standards and actively license foster homes, while other tribes identified that developing foster care licensing policies and procedures was needed.     

A critical situation that tribal child welfare programs deemed to be hindering their ability to place children was that many tribal members are unable to pass state/county background checks and home studies.

Moreover, state licensing standards frequently seem intrusive and burdensome to tribal people. These standards often require foster parents to limit visits by family or community members or prohibit the foster parent from allowing adult relatives to live in the home. These requirements directly conflict with important tribal values related to interactions with and caring for kin. They can leave tribal foster parents in an untenable bind that some resolve by forgoing the opportunity to receive foster care payments or by merely caring for children informally without any form of financial support.

Well, right now I’d lie if I said foster care is really an option, because we’ve had a lot of homes that, for whatever reason, choose not to assist with volunteering or becoming licensed foster parents.

Tribal Child Welfare Director

Finally, tribal child welfare programs frequently do not provide training specifically for foster parents. Thus because funds are limited, these programs may not offer the level of preparation and training of their foster parents that they would like to receive. Foster parents interviewed frequently commented that they would have liked to have received additional training, especially on topics that would have helped them better understand their foster children’s mental health conditions or other special needs. On the flip side, these parents often saw the parenting skills programs that they were offered as being of little value because they felt that they had years of hands-on experience raising their own children, grandchildren, and often relative’s children.

 Needs of Tribal Foster Care Programs

Simply stated, tribes need “more workers, more funding, and more foster parents.”In addition, tribal child welfare program directors, workers, foster parents, community providers, and others identified the following need areas:

  • Increased training and preparation for tribal foster parents;
  • Better assessment of the needs of children being placed in tribal foster homes;
  • Provision of foster parents with more information about the background and problems of the foster children being placed in their homes;
  • Notification of foster parents as to the array of tribal and state/county services and funding that are potentially available;
  • Assistance for tribal foster care workers, so they may become more familiar with state/county foster care policies, regulations, and procedures;
  • Ability to more thoroughly inform tribal foster parents of state/county regulations and assistance in helping them determine if they have met these requirements;
  • Coordination between tribal and state/county child welfare programs in order to provide the most comprehensive level of support and services possible to tribal foster parents and foster children; and
  • Access to funding for care providers, especially when not licensed formally by the state.

Tribal Foster Parents’ Perceptions of the Tribal Child Welfare Program

The majority of tribal foster parents perceived the tribal child welfare program and its workers as being “very good at what they do” and as committed to helping and to the well-being of the children. These foster parents felt that they had a strong relationship with their tribal foster care worker(s) and could call upon this individual “day or night.” Workers were perceived as providing a great deal of emotional support to foster parents in addition to the assistance with material resources and referrals to services they gave. Foster parents frequently commented on the fact that their tribal foster care worker took time to explain in-depth child welfare or adoption processes. Workers also kept foster parents informed about what was going on throughout the course of child welfare cases involving their foster children. Especially important to tribal foster parents was the fact that they considered their tribal worker to have a strong and caring relationship with the foster children, and they considered this individual to be focused on the safety of the children as well as on maintaining the children’s cultural connectedness.

The social worker worked with us extensively to provide a safe place for the children to be. Throughout the seven years that we’ve had the children, she worked very, very closely with us, making sure that all the court orders were taken care of and what-not. The original court proceedings took place in the county level, and then when we did the adoption, we transferred the actual adoption process to the tribal court. But the social worker here helped me in very many levels of raising these children, from doctoring and seeing to it that they had school supplies, and the older one needed counseling, and she visited them on a regular basis. And she helped with a few family issues that had come up, and just she was actively involved all the way around.

Tribal Child Welfare Family


Most tribal foster care programs from the needs assessment operated in partnership with foster parents. Tribal foster care workers allowed foster parents a high degree of decision making in regard to what was best for the child, who in most cases was also a relative. Although tribal programs might not be working from a formal wraparound model, these programs provided an exceptionally integrated package of services to foster children and foster parents given the funding and staffing limitations they contend with (see Table 6). As one foster father commented, there were just “no negatives” about working with the tribal program. In the end, however, like the tribal programs, tribal foster parents also expressed that programs needed more funding and more workers.

Table 6. Strengths and Positive Characteristics of Tribal Programs Identified by Tribal Foster and Adoptive Parents

Tribal foster and adoptive parents shared that tribal child welfare workers . . .

Were very competent.

Were readily available and accessible.

Were supportive, responsive, and culturally sensitive.

Had strong relationships with the foster children they served and treated them well.

Supported foster parents with materials goods (e.g., diapers, furniture, appliances, clothing, school supplies, and food), as well as emotional support and counseling.

Often transported foster children to needed appointments or cultural activities.

Provided helpful explanations of the child welfare and adoption processes.

Did their best to provide foster parents with background on the child.

Were concerned with helping foster children maintain their cultural connections.

Were able to access services for foster children that were helpful.

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