Tribal Customary Adoption and the Budding of a Much Needed Partnership

Vevila Hussey, MSW

My non-Native friends: imagine that you are suddenly no longer allowed to be wed with the ceremony your ancestors used forever. No honeymoon. No throwing of the bouquet. The vows include values that are not your own, and the process seems mundane. Or imagine your child was informed they would not be allowed to have a traditional high school graduation.  Rather than a ceremony, they spend the day in court watching scared families enter and exit the court room.  The final semester finishing without the recognition afforded to their friends and relatives.  Ceremonies and rituals are vital experiences in all societies’ cultures, and often mark the transition from one phase of life to another.  They not only benefit those who are directly involved, but also the community as a whole.  Traditional Native American culture is no exception.

As of July 1, 2010, children who are dependents of the Juvenile Court in California and covered by ICWA, received a new option for permanency;  one that enables youth and Tribal communities to benefit from the use of vital traditional adoption ceremonies and rituals, among other advantages.

Tribal Customary Adoption (TCA) is different from regular adoption, in that it allows the incorporation of cultural traditions into an adoption process that afforded little to none, provides Tribes the authority to approve or disapprove of a potential adoptive placement, mandates collaboration between child welfare agencies and Tribes, prevents the severing of Tribal ties and benefits, and allows adoption to occur without the termination of parental rights.

The Flow of a Child’s Case in the Child Welfare System

When a child is placed or is removed from their parent’s or guardian’s care, their parent or guardian are often offered community services to address the issues which led to the child’s removal.  These are termed family reunification services.  (If you are involved in a case in which family reunification services are court ordered, you may want to check out Active Efforts Cheat Sheet, which is also on the Ayazuta blog).  Federal law dictates that a “concurrent plan” must be put in place in the event that the parents do not make progress in their services.  “Concurrent” can  simply be translated as “a backup plan” for the child’s placement.  Options for this plan include long-term care, guardianship, adoption, and now TCA.

After a pre-determined period of time, the court determines whether the parent or guardian has made adequate progress in the rehabilitative services they were required to complete.  (The amount of time given ranges from six to eighteen months, depending on the variables in the individual case.)  If the parents don’t “rehabilitate” and address the reason why the case was brought to the Court’s attention, the backup or “concurrent” plan becomes the primary plan for the child’s case and very possibly, the only hope that child has for a stable home through young adulthood.  Child welfare social workers are trained to identify cases in which adoption is a possibility;  in their eyes, each child deserves a stable environment in which they can thrive, and adoption is the best opportunity for that stability.  Adoption ideally lasts through young adulthood and beyond, a refreshing change from being moved from foster home to foster home for sometimes trivial matters.

Adoption, however, within the child welfare system has typically not been favored by Tribes as “the concurrent plan”, and for good reason.  Historically, adoption was used in an attempt to force assimilation for generations of Native American children.  Also, many Tribes have cited disagreement with the termination of parental rights, which sometimes severs Tribal connections and benefits.

TCA bridges the interests of child welfare agencies and Tribes and affords Tribes the right to use traditional ceremonies and rituals, promoting the preservation of Tribal culture.

Empowerment of Tribes

TCA empowers Tribes by mandating the court’s consideration of the TCA option while the child’s case is still in its early stages. The assigned child welfare social worker must inquire with the Tribe as to their desire to pursue a TCA in the beginning of the case.  The court is then required to wait for a definite response from the Tribe regarding their decision prior to proceeding with the child’s case.   If the Tribe determines that TCA is appropriate for the youth, the Tribe is afforded a level of consultation and authority rarely seen in non-Tribal dependency Courts.  Described as an “ongoing partnership,” the Tribe not only shares Tribal adoption customs, laws, and rituals with regard to the adoption process, but is also engaged through written, verbal, and in-person (where possible) Team Decision Making (TDM) and interdisciplinary meetings for the child.

Further, the adoption home-study is completed by the Tribe or a Tribal designee, and the Tribe is given the ultimate authority for final approval or disapproval of the home being considered.  (For more specific details please see the resources provided at the end of the article).

Mutual Benefits

While the potential benefits for Tribes who choose to pursue TCA for their youth are vast, there are also benefits to be reaped by child welfare social workers.  Overburdened child welfare workers who have been stretched in every sense of the word due to the repeated financial blows to their programs, are given a break in those cases in which the Tribe chooses TCA.  (That is, if they don’t resist the plan.  Resisting implementation of the law will only require more time and energy).  Further, the partnership that is now mandated by TCA cultivates an additional opportunity for something that transcends cultures – understanding.  Two differing cultures, often worlds apart, align with a mission crucial for the future of both societies: loved and nurtured children.

In the words of Sitting Bull, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

Do you have any experiences regarding any aspect of Tribal Customary Adoption that you feel comfortable sharing?  Are your local Courts and child welfare agencies recognizing the law?  Some Tribes and agencies are waiting to see how others implement TCA, and some of us (okay, me) are excited to hear details and thoughts about it’s implementation.  Please feel free to share as you feel comfortable in the comments section below or email me directly.

Resources for Tribal Customary Adoption Implementation

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS), with the help of Tribes, have provided very specific information on what TCA is and how to implement it within your agency here:

If you have read through the document and you still have unanswered questions as to  implementation, the Bureau responsible for assisting with implementation can be reached at (916) 657-1858.

For further information regarding TCA from the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), see:

Like other adopted children, TCA children are eligible for financial assistance through the Adoption Assistance Program (AAP). For more information, view:

The Judicial Council’s website for the mandatory forms to incorporate TCA into child welfare procedures are here:

For current contact information for Tribes in California and throughout the nation:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tribal Customary Adoption and the Budding of a Much Needed Partnership

  1. Liz says:

    The Soboba Band of Luseno Indians ICWA Advocate Nancy Currie and their awesome attorney Kimberly Cluff are the first to be credited and contacted if anyone has any questions regarding TCA. Props for the ladies in So CA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>