In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) began the process of ameliorating centuries of prejudice, racism, and deliberate attempts to strip Indigenous peoples of their culture and heritage. The legislation created legal boundaries to protect Indian families and communities from the loss of their children. Forty-five years later, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) reaffirmed the value of these boundaries in its recent decision to uphold the federal ICWA in Haaland v. Brackeen 


As SCOTUS announced its decision, our Indigenous-led research team was already hard at work analyzing the impacts of one of the country’s most comprehensive acts protecting Indian children, Nebraska's Indian Child Welfare Act. The Honoring Indigenous Families (HIF) project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Policies for Action program, explores the legislation's effects on Indian families whose child welfare cases go to state courts.  


This collaborative effort among the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition, Inc. (NICWC), Nebraska Appleseed, and the University of Oklahoma is the first to analyze the impact of Nebraska’s ICWA beyond the county level. The collegial spirit among Nebraska's child welfare and Indian-serving agencies uniquely positions us to do what many in other states think is implausible because coordination across these systems is typically lacking.  
Exploring lessons from Nebraska’s ICWA policy implementation 


Our research through the HIF project will provide critical insight into the effectiveness of ICWA policy and practice changes and produce replicable evaluation strategies for other states and the federal government. In addition, it will identify barriers and lessons learned through Nebraska’s more than five years of implementation that other states can learn from in implementing their own ICWA compliance procedures.  


Led by Indigenous people and spearheaded by NICWC, the HIF project centers on achieving equity for Indian families and communities. Through the HIF project, we hope to both demonstrate how Nebraska’s ICWA resulted in better outcomes for Native American children and families and identify which parts of the child welfare system still require additional improvements. 


The project is the first step in understanding how best to support Indigenous communities in Nebraska in restoring balance within their communities and building strategies to overcome the historical trauma that has disrupted tribal communities for over a century.  
Positive trends in reducing American Indian child adoptions by families who are neither kin nor Indian 


American Indian/Alaska Native children are overrepresented in the foster care system.  However, initial data from the National Center for Juvenile Justice suggests this trend has been changing for Nebraska children since the state revamped its ICWA in 2015. That year, Nebraska had an American Indian/Alaskan Native disproportionality ratio of 7, meaning this group was 7 times more likely to show up in the child welfare system than the white population. Nebraska’s ratio was the second highest in the country, behind only Minnesota. By 2018, the ratio had fallen to about 4th in the country, behind Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. 


In addition, initial findings from examining the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System indicate that American Indian children are less likely to be adopted by non-Indian non-kin now than before the 2015 statute.  


A more thorough picture of how Indian child adoption cases progress through systems 


ICWA compliance requires much more than lowering disproportionality ratios and reducing the number of adoptions that potentially separate Indian children from their communities; being able to examine the life of a case through both child welfare and juvenile court systems data will best depict how these cases progress through the various systems Indian children and their families navigate. 


Remembering that the removal and placement of Indian children away from their families and communities is a central component of historical trauma, Indian child welfare practice must account for individual, family, and community-level trauma while negotiating with a system that has been an instrument of community disruption in the past.  


Because of this history, pursuing a culture of health regarding child welfare practice must involve healing and restoring balance between systems of care. This is especially true in intergovernmental relationships among tribes and states, their respective child welfare units, and their respective tribal and state courts. 


For more information about the HIF project or NICWC, please contact Misty Flowers at or Claudette Grinnell Davis at 

Related Projects