Standing together for Native children and foster families

Standing together for Native children and foster families

An integral part of NAYA’s Foster Care Services is helping youth stay connected to their culture while in care. Native youth are deserving of a sense of belonging, and our programs aim to firmly establish feelings of self-worth. May is National Foster Care Awareness Month, so we’re highlighting our culturally appropriate foster care support services. 

In Oregon, there are more than 8,600 children in the state’s foster care system today; 4.7 percent are Native American. Research shows that Native children are far more likely to be removed from their homes at first contact with child welfare agencies than White children in similar circumstances. Mistaking poverty for neglect is just one of the biases that feed into that trend. Being removed from their homes is traumatic for the children because it disconnects them from loved ones, friends, school, and their community.   

NAYA’s Foster Care Services offers four distinct programs that help ensure Native youth live in homes that provide stability, a place to practice culture, and a connection to community.  

NAYA’s Suite of Foster Care Services 

Foster Care Support helps youth in state and tribal foster care systems access fun community-based events, including activities such as beading, drawing, and painting. One of the popular activities is our Sibling Family Enrichment Visit Nights, which provide foster youth and families a safe place to gather, reconnect, and catch up with each other. 

KEEP support groups provide parenting skills to foster parents caring for Native youth across the state. KEEP groups take place in a cohort model over a 16-week period, and the connections participants gain can alleviate feelings of seclusion while staff keeps culture at the forefront.   

“We incorporated NAYA’s mission and core values throughout the curriculum, to help lessen the trauma foster youth experience. Some foster parents have never had any cultural information or any training around cultural differences. KEEP provides that knowledge to foster parents in a structured way,” said NAYA Foster Care Manager Elisha Big Back.   

Pathways to Adulthood Independent Living Program is designed to provide life skills for foster youth, 16–21 years old, to transition out of care. Youth meet monthly with an advocate to work on life goals around education, employment, housing, health, transportation, parenting skills, and much more.  

Parenting in 2 Worlds is a 10-week, culturally specific, and collaborative group that provides biological families with information and resources to keep their children safely in their homes.  Once the curriculum is completed, parents can access an additional six months of family support through case management.   

Read more about these impactful supports in our April 2022 blog

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) 

With the overrepresentation of Native youth in the child welfare system, it is more critical than ever to keep children connected to the people and places they know. In Indian Country, all eyes are on Brackeen v. Haaland, a case being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. At the center of this case, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) is being called into question.  

From the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA):
ICWA was enacted in 1978 in response to a crisis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native children, families, and tribes. Studies revealed that large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. In fact, research found that 25%–35% of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85% were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available. The intent of Congress under ICWA was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families” (25 U.S.C. § 1902). For more information, visit the NICWA site.  

ICWA is considered the “gold standard” in child welfare best practices and it prioritizes placing Native adoptees with members of their tribe whenever possible. Although progress has been made as a result of ICWA, out-of-home placement still occurs more frequently for Native children than it does for the general population. In fact, recent research on systemic bias in the child welfare system yielded shocking results. Native families are four times more likely to have their children removed and placed in foster care than their White counterparts. So, in spite of the advances achieved since 1978, ICWA’s protections are still needed, and continual vigilance is of the utmost importance. 


To support Native organizations “on the ground,” NICWA recently hosted the 41st Annual Protecting Our Children Conference in Reno, NV, and NAYA’s Foster Care Services and Early Childhood teams attended. At the largest national gathering focused on Native American child advocacy, NAYA staff was able to meet with other Native community organizations and tribal leaders from across the country to share best practices, discuss issues, and get regenerative energy from each other. The work is hard, so healing together in community is important. 

Staff learned about strategies for developing innovative child welfare and mental health service delivery practices, creating peer-to-peer networks, and developing policies that lead to systems change.  

“The NICWA Conference gave our staff the opportunity to see that the work we do is also being done across the country, and how connected everyone is. I was gratified to see that light in their eyes when they realized that they were doing work that supports our future leaders,” said NAYA Foster Care Services Manager Elisha Big Back.