Tribal Child Welfare Codes as Sovereignty in Action. 2016 NICWA conference edition

Tribal Child Welfare Codes as Sovereignty in Action. 2016 NICWA conference edition

With passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), Congress formally recognized Native nations’ inherent authority to govern child welfare matters and provided support for tribal self-determination over child welfare. Because ICWA “assumes that a tribal code is the governance mechanism by which a tribe establishes and implements its jurisdiction over all aspects of child well-being,” ICWA’s passage also marked the starting point for (re-)establishing tribal laws to govern the protection and care of Indian children and families.

Almost 40 years later, how have tribes responded to this opportunity? How have tribes’ child welfare laws and codes evolved? How might tribes strengthen their laws to implement their jurisdiction? How are Native nations enacting their sovereignty to protect their children?

Based on a study of 107 tribal child welfare codes conducted collaboratively by the Native Nations Institute (NNI) at The University of Arizona and the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), this report focuses on eight core aspects of tribal child welfare policy:

  • Jurisdiction
  • Mandatory reporting
  • Alternative (differential) responses
  • Paternity
  • Removal of a child from the family home
  • Termination of parental rights
  • Permanency (guardianships and adoption)
  • Best interest of the child

Where relevant, our discussions consider how tribal child welfare codes reflect tribal culture and tradition and how codes can reflect the specific needs of a tribal community. Throughout, the report aims to provide decision-relevant information for tribal leaders working to increase protections for their communities’ children and families.


Native Nations
Resource Type

Starks, Rachel Rose, Adrian T. Smith, Mary Beth Jäger, Miriam Jorgensen, and Stephen Cornell. 2016. "Tribal Child Welfare Codes as Sovereignty in Action. [Conference Edition]." Paper presented at the 2016 National Indian Child Welfare Association Annual Meeting, St. Paul, MN, April 4-6, 2016. Portland, OR: National Indian Child Welfare Association; Tucson, AZ: Native Nations Institute.

Related Resources

Protecting Our Children: A Review of 100+ Tribal Welfare Codes

NNI researchers Mary Beth Jäger (Citizen Potawatomi), Rachel Starks (Zuni/Navajo), and National Indian Child Welfare Association governmental affairs staff attorney, Adrian Smith shared the results of an ongoing study on culture, removal, termination of parental rights, and adoption in tribal child…

Thumbnail or cover image
The Ojibwe Language Program: Teaching Mille Lacs Band Youth the Ojibwe Language to Foster a Stronger Sense of Cultural Identity and Sovereignty

As part of its effort to assimilate American Indians into mainstream society, the federal government launched an assault on Native languages. For example, in the 1890s the government built twenty-five off-reservation boarding schools to which many Indian children were forcibly removed and where…


This seven-minute video presents the founding, development, and current work of the Hopi Education Endowment Fund (HEEF), which won an Honoring Nations award (High Honors) from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development in 2006. The video chronicles HEEF's work in support of its…