With a strong understanding of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), tribal leaders and child welfare professionals can help ensure compliance, protect their communities, and protect tribal sovereignty.

Protect your children. Know your rights.

About ICWA

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law passed in 1978 in response to the devastating number of American Indian and Alaska Native children being removed from their families and placed in non-Native homes. ICWA requires states and courts to protect the best interest of American Indian and Alaska Native children by keeping their connections to family, community, and culture intact.  Compliance is mandatory yet many state and court systems are still struggling to understand and effectively meet these requirements.

Mom & Baby
Child at powwow

Labeled the “gold standard” in child welfare policy and practice by a coalition of 18 national child advocacy organizations, ICWA recognizes and protects the right of all Indian children to be loved, safe, and connected to their family, culture, and tribal nations.

ICWA serves the best interest of Indian children by requiring state courts and agencies to:

  • Provide active efforts to both prevent removal and to reunify
  • Follow placement preferences
  • Obtain testimony from a Qualified Indian Expert Witness

Law and Regulations

The Indian Child Welfare Act (25 U.S.C. §§ 1901–1963)

The purpose of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is “…to protect the best interest of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture… ” (25 U.S. C. 1902).

In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued both official regulations (25 C.F.R. Part 23, Indian Child Welfare Act Proceedings, Final Rule) and accompanying guidelines to help state courts and child welfare agencies implement ICWA to provide clarification on important aspects of the law including standard of practice with families.

Resources for a Clearer Understanding of ICWA

ICWA Guide for tribal government and leaders

As leaders, it is time to determine our destiny where our children are concerned…

Download the ICWA Guide for Tribal Governments and Leaders for recommendations from tribal leaders, tribal child welfare staff, and knowledgeable ICWA experts on actions towards ensuring compliance with ICWA.


ICWA Guide Cover

Download the Printable Guide


View the guide in a desktop app


Compliance with ICWA is mandatory yet many state and court systems are still struggling to understand and effectively meet these requirements. Non-compliance with this law perpetuates the disproportionate numbers of American Indian and Alaska Native children represented in state and county child welfare systems today. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) addressed this continued non-compliance by disseminated federal regulations governing ICWA in 2016. These regulations serve to create more consistency in ICWA implementation.

Disproportionality rates

Native youth are overrepresented in foster care systems. American Indian and Alaska Native children enter into foster care nationally at a rate of 2.6% times higher than non-Native children. For some individual states, this rate is drastically higher. In Minnesota, for example, the disproportionality index is 13.9.

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Improving the Well-being of American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Families through State-Level Efforts to Improve Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance indicates “the most critical issues of noncompliance involve:

(1) lack of regular oversight of ICWA implementation,

(2) AI/AN children not being identified early in child welfare proceedings,

(3) tribes not receiving early and proper notification of child welfare proceedings involving their member children and families,

(4) lack of placement homes that reflect the preferences defined within ICWA,

(5) limited training and support for state and private agency staff to develop knowledge and skills in implementing ICWA, and

(6) inadequate resources for Tribal child welfare agencies to participate and support their state and private agency counterparts.”


Without Tribal, state and court collaboration to address how ICWA can meet the needs of Native children, the goals of ICWA cannot be fulfilled as the law was intended.

Quick Reference Sheet for Tribes

Building an Effective Tribal-State Child Welfare Partnership

Coming Together for the Children: The Maine Tribal-State ICWA Workgroup (Webinar Recording)

Partnership Agreement Examples


Through these recorded webinars, presenters share their experiences around tribes in New Mexico coming together to address child welfare, the development of a state-tribal office, and most recently, ICWA higher standards which were enacted on July 1, 2022.

In this three-part webinar series, you will learn:

  • How the New Mexico Tribal Indian Child Welfare Consortium (NMTIC) was created, how the group approaches partnership, and how members respect and embrace each tribes’ unique values
  • How the NMTIC partnership with state departments has improved outcomes for Native children and families and led to the development of the State Office of Tribal Affairs within the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD)
  • How the NMTIC and NM Partners, a coalition of tribal, state, and court agencies, worked together effectively to draft and pass the Indian Family Protection Act, establishing higher standards for ICWA within New Mexico


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Current Findings & Reflections From The ICWA Baseline Measures Report

This webinar, the first in the Capacity Building Center for Tribes’ “ICWA Partnership Webinar Series”, shares findings from the ICWA Baseline Measures Project, which focused on building the capacity of Court Improvement Programs (CIPs) to measure the application of ICWA in state court practice.

Presenters Alicia Summers, Ph.D., and Andy Yost, JD., Ph.D., highlight specific findings, share how CIPs are utilizing findings, discuss the value of data in ICWA implementation work, provide access to the tools and instruments used to collect data, and discuss how focus groups were utilized to develop these tools.

View the Recorded Webinar

ICWA Partnership Series (2 of 3)

New Lessons Learned in Tribal-State Partnerships

Three sites – Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Minnesota – received ICWA Implementation Partnership Grants from the Administration of Children and Families to create timely and effective models of partnership. Learn about the outcomes they achieved as they share their journeys and lessons learned in this 90-minute webinar. Part 2 in the 3-part “ICWA Partnership Webinar Series”. Presenters Harmony Bercier (ND), Bree Bussey and Mark Erickson (MN), and Te’Ata Purcell, Jonathan Moore, and Jessica Hargrove (OK).

View the Recorded Webinar

ICWA Partnership Website Series (3 of 3)

active Efforts & the ICWA Family Preservation Program with the North Dakota ICWA Implementation Partnership Grant

The final webinar in this 3-part series highlighted innovative best practice and research approaches from North Dakota that help honor the spirit of ICWA and tribal sovereignty: 1. Active Efforts: Presenters shared findings from a qualitative and quantitative survey of over 200 caseworkers and court system staff focused on active efforts 2. ICWA Family Preservationists (IFP): Presenters shared the creation process of these new IFP positions, the essential role they serve, and data from the first 20 months of the project Presenters: Jessi Leneaugh, Avery Davies, Jennifer Russell, and Harmony Bercier

View the Recorded Webinar

Recorded Webinar: ICWA Implementation Partnership Grants

Tribes, states, and court improvement programs in Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Minnesota are working together to achieve better outcomes for Native children and youth. Learn about these three collaborative projects, funded by the Administration for Children and Families, that aim to create timely and effective models of partnership practice around ICWA.  

For States

Quick Reference Sheet for State Agencies

Quick Reference Sheet on Active Efforts

Bureau of Indian Affairs List of Designated Tribal Agents by Region (March 2023)

State-Tribal Partnerships: Coaching to ICWA Compliance
Learn about supporting culturally responsive services for American Indian and Alaska Native children, youth, and families and increasing ICWA compliance. Use this 3-day in-person training to engage in collaborative learning and action planning for stronger state-tribal partnerships.

Register for free access to this curriculum and materials from the Capacity Building Center for States!


comprehensive state icwa laws

Federal law sets the minimum standards that must be met. Some states, however, have chosen to do more and are working with the Tribes in their regions to implement higher standards. Below are some of their practice materials gathered online and during a Tribal ICWA Peer-to-Peer group meeting with the Capacity Building Center for Tribes.

The National Conference of State Legislatures compiles state statues related to strengthening, enhancing, or complying with ICWA.

icwa active efforts as prevention

Active efforts, a legal requirement included in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), is the gold standard of child welfare practice. Designed to keep families together, active efforts outline the actions caseworkers must take to prevent removals and prioritize reunification. Tribal and state child welfare professionals were invited to join this participatory webinar from the Capacity Building Center for Tribes to discuss how active efforts benefit both tribal and state child welfare systems and the best interests of Indian children and families and hear from states and tribes about how they’re working together to continuously improve their active efforts practice. We have also created a helpful list of resources regarding active efforts.

Active Efforts Webinar cover

View the webinar!

Active Efforts Resource List Cover

View the Resource List!

Qualified Expert Witness Cover

Qualified Expert Witness

All Indian children deserve a strong, protective circle of caring adults to ensure they are loved, safe, and connected to their community, tribe, and culture. ICWA recognizes how important those connections are while also ensuring the continued existence of tribal nations as unique, distinct, and sovereign. ICWA requires state child welfare agencies and courts to obtain the testimony of a qualified expert witness (QEW) at the removal hearing and in the event of a termination of parental rights.

View this resource list to learn more about ICWA and the critical role QEWs play in protecting Indian children and tribal nations.

This document includes information and resources on:
• ICWA and the 2016 Federal Regulations
• Serving as a Qualified Expert Witness and required characteristics
• Providing QEW testimony
• QEW training
• Resources for courts and attorneys

ICWA Placement Preferences cover

ICWA placement preferences

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law that requires state and county child welfare agencies and courts to follow preferred placement preferences, in the absence of good cause, for both adoptive and pre-adoptive or foster care placements of Native children. These preferred placements work to keep Native children connected to their families, communities, and culture.

ICWA Inquiry and Notification Resource List cover

ICWA Inquiry & Notification

Receipt of an ICWA Notification provides an opportunity for a tribe to defend their rights under ICWA, determine any tribal resources available to the family, and protect the best interests of the tribal child(ren). While the responsibility for Inquiry and Notification lies with state and county child welfare systems, this new resource offers suggestions that tribes can incorporate into their own practice to support states’ and counties’ efforts to effectively implement and fully comply with ICWA. 

Additional RESOURCES

ICWA Implementation Partnership Grant 2017-2023: Project Overview and 2023 Summit Report (Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies, University of Minnesota Deluth)

A Guide to Compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (National Indian Child Welfare Association)

Measuring Compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act: An Assessment Toolkit (National Center for Juvenile and Family Court Judges)

A Research and Practice Brief: Measuring Compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (Casey Family Programs)

Improving Compliance Through State-Tribal Coordination (Center for Court Innovation)

Child and Family Services Reviews: Fact Sheet for Tribal Child Welfare Officials (Children’s Bureau)

Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare (Children’s Bureau)

Enforcement of ICWA Requirements (Native American Rights Fund)

Dragonfly artwork courtesy of Marissa Joly
Find Marissa on Instagram: @art_by_mmj


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The Children's Bureau, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, funds the Capacity Building Center for Tribes. The contents of this website and the resources herein do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Children's Bureau. 

Email: info@cbc4tribes.org
Phone: 1-800-871-8702