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Indian Child Welfare Act: Existing Information on Implementation Issues Could Be Used to Target Guidance and Assistance to States

GAO-05-290 Published: Apr 04, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 04, 2005.
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In the 1960s and 1970s, American Indian children were about six times more likely to be placed in foster care than other children and many were placed in non-American Indian homes or institutions. In 1978, the Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to protect American Indian families and to give tribes a role in making child welfare decisions for children subject to ICWA. ICWA requires that (1) tribes be notified and given an opportunity to intervene when the state places a child subject to ICWA in foster care or seeks to terminate parental rights on behalf of such a child and (2) children be placed if possible with relatives or tribal families. This report describes (1) the factors that influence placement decisions for children subject to ICWA; (2) the extent to which, if any, placements for children subject to ICWA have been delayed; and (3) federal oversight of states' implementation of ICWA.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services To improve the usefulness of the information states are required to provide on their ICWA compliance efforts, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the head of the Administration for Children and Families to (1) review the ICWA implementation issues identified in its CFSRs, (2) require states to discuss in their annual progress reports any significant ICWA issues not addressed in their program improvement plans, and (3) consider using the information on ICWA implementation in the Child and Family Services Reviews, annual progress and services reports, and program improvement plans to target guidance and assistance to states in addressing any identified issues.
Closed – Not Implemented
While HHS stated that it shares GAO's concerns regarding states' implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), it emphasized that it does not have the authority, resources, or expertise to address GAO's recommendation. HHS also questioned GAO's assumption that ACF is the most appropriate oversight agency for ICWA, rather than another federal agency, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Administration for Children and Families (ACF) continues to disagree with this recommendation: it took no action in FY07, did not respond to our request for an update in FY08, and reported no change in status in FY09. Review of relevant guidance since the report was published does not indicate that HHS is collecting any additional information with respect to ICWA compliance.

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Child adoptionChildrenData collectionDecision makingFederal lawstate relationsFoster childrenIndian affairs legislationNative American rightsNative AmericansPerformance measuresProgram evaluationPublic assistance programsReporting requirementsSurveysChild welfareProgram implementation