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The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Initiative

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is a proud supporter of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). That act is a federal law passed in 1978 that sets minimum standards for states engaging in child protection work involving Native American children. An important aspect of ICWA is its recognition of the 11 Native American tribes in Minnesota, and how they play an integral role in helping our county engage in effective and sustainable Indian child welfare practice. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office provides legal advice and representation to the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department. This ensures our office complies with both the letter and spirit of ICWA, and to partner with tribes to reduce the overrepresentation of Native American children in foster care.

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In 2021, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is launching an “ICWA Initiative.” The mission  of this initiative is to identify and implement policy changes, and to mobilize resources to help prevent the removal of Native American children—consistent with the spirit and intent of ICWA—while following through on the county’s obligation to keep children safe. To date, the initiative is comprised of several smaller projects that include:

  • Training staff on historical trauma and trauma-informed practices,
  • Improving courtroom practice to make court less intimidating and more supportive for families,
  • Identifying more cases where voluntary service plans can be developed outside the courtroom in community settings that allow for more traditional, culturally-specific practices,
  • Supporting relative foster care providers with additional resources, and
  • Quarterly meetings with tribes to exchange ideas for improving outcomes.

Native American children in our community have long been subject to racist policies intended to assimilate them into white culture. Beginning in the late 19th century, Minnesota has been home to at least 16 boarding schools designed to “[carry] out the government’s mission to restructure Indians’ minds and personalities by severing children’s physical, cultural, and spiritual connections to their tribes" (MinnPost). Although these boarding schools were eventually closed, our government continues to struggle with enacting sustainable Indian child welfare policies.

When Congress began assessing the need for reform, a study had found that during a three-month period in 1977, Native American children comprised 12-percent of the children in foster care in Hennepin County; a disproportionate figure considering that Native Americans made up only 4-percent of the city of Minneapolis’ population at that time. This percentage suggested that “the placement rate amongst Indian youth was approximately six times that of non-Indians. For ages 0 – 4, the rate of placement services was approximately ten times that of non-Indians." (Native American Rights Fund (PDF 11MB))

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress concluding, “that the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families." (25 U.S. Code § 1901 - Congressional findings.) States and counties must comply with minimum federal standards established by Congress for removing Native American children from their families.

Minnesota largely embraced these reform efforts and eventually passed the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA) in 1985. MIFPA filled gaps in the federal ICWA and required social service agency to notify a child’s tribe of any potential out of home placement. Despite these legislative changes, the overrepresentation of Native American children in foster care has remained relatively constant in Minnesota since ICWA was enacted more than 40 years ago.

The foundation of the act is the political status of Indian tribes as quasi-sovereign nation states and not on the racial identity of individual children. ICWA requires the county to make “active efforts” to prevent the removal of a Native American child from their family, and to reunify the family if removal is necessary to prevent imminent harm to the child. The county is required to provide culturally-appropriate services to strengthen families and to help address any barriers that prevent the family from engaging with those services.


When Native American children go into foster care in Minnesota, ICWA requires the county to support the placement with “qualified expert witness testimony” from a member of the child’s tribe if possible. The child’s tribe works with the county to develop a plan that prioritizes placing the child with family or other tribal members.

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa

On July 26, 2021, Mike Freeman traveled to the Bois Forte Reservation and met Chairwoman Cathy Chavers and several members of the Bois Forte Tribal Council to listen to the tribe’s concerns and discuss the HCAO’s ICWA initiative. Chairwoman Chavers also provided a tour the tribe’s government building.

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa_HCAO Visit
From L-R: HCAO County Attorney Mike Freeman,
Chairwoman Cathy Chavers, and Assistant County Attorney Dominic J. Terry

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe

On July 27, 2021, Mike Freeman traveled to the Leech Lake Reservation and met with Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr., Councilman Steve White, and Executive Director, Robert Budreau, Jr. Executive to listen to the tribe’s concerns concerns and discuss the HCAO's ICWA Initiative.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe_HCAO Visit
From L-R: Assistant County Attorney Dominic J. Terry, Chairman Faron Jackson, 
HCAO County Attorney Mike Freeman, and Robert Budreau, Jr. Executive Director

Red Lake Nation

On August 30, 2021, Mike Freeman, along with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig, travelled to the Red Lake Reservation and met with Chairman Darrell Seki to listen to the tribe’s concerns and discuss the HCAO’s ICWA Initiative.

Red Lake Nation_HCAO Visit

Chairman Darrell Seki with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and various tribal staff

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