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Issue 19 | February 2023

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Understanding Tribal Sovereignty to Improve CAC Services

According to 2020 United States (US) Census data, over 80% of the population identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) resides in the western region of the United States1. Many tribal reservations in the west are geographically isolated and have limited access to important services2. To increase access to children’s advocacy center (CAC) services that are culturally responsive, CACs must first ensure they understand a key concept specific to AI/AN communities: tribal sovereignty.


Tribal sovereignty refers to tribal nations’ authority to self-govern, conserving their inherent right to be “nations within a nation”3. This means tribes have a government-to-government relationship with state and federal governments in the US. Thus, AI/AN tribal membership status should be understood as a legal or political designation, rather than a strictly racial one4. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 emphasizes the “sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction” tribes have over child welfare cases involving members who reside on tribal land and establishes a protocol for transferring other cases to tribal court that involve children who are current or eligible tribal members5. By establishing minimum federal standards for the removal and placement of AI/AN children, ICWA intends 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).” ICWA was enacted in response to decades of unjust removals of AI/AN children from their families by the US government – a history that contributed to intergenerational trauma and a distrust of US child welfare intervention among AI/AN communities6. Given this history, it is critical that non-tribal CACs understand and respect tribal sovereignty when forging partnerships with tribal communities and serving AI/AN children and families. 

NCARC Webinar Recording: Tribal Sovereignty and the Children’s Advocacy Center Movement

September 2022

In this webinar, staff from the Native Child Advocacy Resource Center (NCARC) housed at the National Native Children's Trauma Center (NNCTC) discuss the implications of Tribal Sovereignty for Children’s Advocacy Center professionals who serve American Indian and Alaska Native youth and families.

Click here to view

The National Native Children’s Trauma Center (NNCTC), one of WRCAC’s national partners, launched the Native Child Advocacy Resource Center (NCARC) as part of the Training and Technical Assistance Project to Expand Children’s Advocacy Centers Serving American Indian/Alaska Native Communities, with the goal of increasing the capacity of tribal CACs and non-tribal CACs serving AI/AN youth. In 2022, NCARC received additional funding to expand TTA and resources to tribes, CACs, and multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) as they develop, improve, or expand CACs and MDT responses to child abuse cases in AI/AN communities. Any tribe or non-tribal CAC/MDT can reach out for assistance.

NNCTC has found that CACs often do not have formal partnerships with surrounding tribal communities or experience challenges maintaining partnerships with tribes. They have also found that working relationships between tribal CACs and non-tribal CACs are critical in facilitating knowledge sharing. NNCTC Director, Dr. Maegan Rides At The Door, shared with WRCAC that “CACs vary widely in their history and current working relationships with tribes, but most are at the introductory stages of building relationships with tribes or are renewing their relationships.” 

“Historically, tribes have not had the decision-making power to decide how to deal with issues such as child maltreatment. Providing empowerment, voice, and choice is a trauma-informed principle and one that is necessary in moving forward."

Dr. Maegan Rides At The Door, NNCTC Director

NCARC has published five practice briefs to guide CACs seeking to build and maintain partnerships with nearby tribal communities. Tribal sovereignty is a foundational theme in each of the practice briefs, which cover topics such as culturally responsive services, historical trauma, and memorandums of understanding (MOUs). “Tribal nations are in an era of self-determination" explains Dr. Rides At The Door. “Historically, tribes have not had the decision-making power to decide how to deal with issues such as child maltreatment. Providing empowerment, voice, and choice is a trauma-informed principle and one that is necessary in moving forward.”

Key takeaways from each NCARC practice brief are provided below. We encourage you to read these practice briefs in full and share them with your CAC staff and partners. Stay tuned for additional practice briefs!

NCARC Practice Briefs – Key Takeaways

Improving Child Advocacy Center Service Delivery by Building Relationships with Indigenous Communities

August 2021

  • Relationship building with tribal communities may differ significantly from relationship building with non-tribal communities.
  • CACs must be aware of the ongoing collective trauma experienced by tribal communities due to US government intervention, and how this has led to disparities in physical, mental, and communal well-being among Indigenous populations.
  • Given this history, tribal communities may be initially distrustful of non-tribal CACs attempting to deliver services, even if the CACs have good intentions.
  • Strategies CACs can use to build trust and foster authentic, collaborative relationships with tribal communities include not making assumptions, learning by listening, engaging with the tribal community’s elders, recruiting tribal community members to serve in CAC staff and leadership positions, incorporating tribal perspectives into CAC policies and procedures, and establishing regular check-in meetings with tribal partners outside of multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings. 
View Practice Brief 1

Culturally Responsive Services

December 2021

  • Providing culturally responsive services to tribal communities requires an approach centered on cultural humility, which means being open to learning from others, questioning assumptions and judgments, being aware of potential power imbalances, and educating ourselves about the history, experiences, and cultural norms of the tribal community. Specific steps one might take include the following:
  • Gain a deeper understanding about the historical and contemporary experiences of colonization in the community by seeking out knowledge about harm caused by “helpers” in the area. Be aware of how your decisions will impact not just the individual but also the family and community and focus on co-creating solutions with families and tribal members.
  • Recognize that norms differ between Western and Indigenous cultures and that Indigenous cultures also differ from one another. Practice cultural humility in understanding and navigating interpersonal interactions between people of different ages, sexes, and family roles.
  • Be aware of different tribal communities’ language preservation and preferences. If you serve tribal communities who are connected to their native language, include traditional language support as part of your CAC’s programming. Additionally, be aware of differences in communication styles. 
View Practice Brief 2

Tribal Children and Forced Assimilation

September 2022

  • The forced assimilation of Indigenous North Americans into Anglo-American culture has been a strategy used by the US government to disrupt tribal communities and divest them of their land.
  • During the “Boarding School Era” (1819-1969), tribal children were removed from their families and placed in residential schools, where they were forbidden from practicing their own cultures and endured abusive conditions.
  • As the Boarding School Era ended, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of American developed the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1978), which involved removing tribal children from their families and placing them with non-tribal adoptive families (primarily white and middle-class). These adoptions were initiated through child welfare proceedings that were premised on misunderstandings of and bias against tribal cultures.
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to keep tribal families and communities intact and uphold tribal sovereignty in child welfare proceedings. However, tribal children are still significantly overrepresented in the child welfare and foster care systems, due in part to state CPS (Child Protective Services) systems not adhering fully to ICWA, and systemic bias.
  • CAC professionals need to be aware of the historical and ongoing forms of forced assimilation that have resulted in intergenerational trauma and fracturing of tribal communities. This knowledge can help CAC professionals approach partnerships with tribes more thoughtfully and explore opportunities for systemic change.
View Practice Brief 3

Tribal Sovereignty and the CAC Model

September 2022

  • Understanding tribal sovereignty is a key component of providing responsive services to AI/AN families.
  • Tribal sovereignty and self-determination are fundamental to the well-being of tribal communities, especially when it comes to child and family services. Tribal assertion of sovereignty in child and family services is in response to generations of US government policies and practices that have removed tribal children from their communities.
  • Tribal sovereignty grants tribes a legal status as party to state child protection proceedings for children who are enrolled tribal members or eligible for enrollment. If the children live on tribal lands, the tribes have full jurisdiction.
  • To demonstrate respect for tribal sovereignty, and to ensure all tribal children have access to effective MDTs, CACs must enter into meaningful and formalized partnerships with relevant tribes. MOUs should articulate the tribe’s inherent right to determine what is in the best interest of its children and families.
View Practice Brief 4

MOUs and Authentic Partnership

September 2022

  • Current data from the National Children’s Alliance indicates that accredited CACs are under-serving AI/AN children.
  • Possible barriers to AI/AN access to accredited CAC services include the isolated rural locations of tribal land, jurisdictional complexities, and challenges with the accreditation process for tribal CACs. A barrier that is frequently reported is a lack of trust or authentic partnership between tribes and CACs.
  • Fewer than one-third of CACs serving tribal communities report having MOUs in place with tribes. Further, NCARC observed that some of the CACs who did report having an MOU in place had not updated the MOU or could not locate it, suggesting that CAC self-reports of MOU implementation do not always represent authentic tribal engagement.
  • CACs who have been observed to engage in effective tribal partnerships invite tribal nations to provide addendums to MOUs to articulate information unique to their respective tribal community, revise their MOUs to address inconsistencies in terminology use by the county vs. the tribes, incorporate language in their MOUs on the Indian Child Welfare Act, and make clear reference to tribally enrolled children in the MOU.
  • Universal tribal MOU implementation should be the goal of the CAC movement, which requires developing and maintaining a positive collaborative relationship with relevant tribes. From a tribal perspective, a CAC that does not consult with tribal experts or agency personnel may be a threat to tribal sovereignty and thus the well-being of its children, families, and communities.
  • The MOU established with tribal partners should be distinct from MOUs established with non-tribal partners and be tailored to the unique needs of specific tribes. If possible, CACs should seek tribal council approval for their MOUs, an indication of true partnership with a tribe. 
View Practice Brief 5

Looking for additional information? Check out these recorded resources from our partners at the Midwest Regional CAC, presented in partnership with the National Native Children’s Trauma Center. 

How Children’s Advocacy Professionals Can Support the Implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act

Lisa Stark, CAPSW, MSW

This webinar explores strategies to engage AI/AN children and families in culturally responsive ways, improving access to and participation in the CAC process. This will ideally lead to increased criminal prosecutions and accurate safety assessments improving public safety.

View the Archived Webinar

Providing Culturally Sensitive, Trauma Responsive Victim and Survivor Services

Maegan Rides At The Door, PhD, LCPC

This training is designed to increase cultural competence for child advocacy centers who serve AI/AN children and families. Relevant research and statistics are shared to help participants understand the prevalence of trauma in AI/AN communities. The trainer provides insight into the impact of historical trauma on services available and provided to AI/AN families as well as recommendations for culturally sensitive engagement.

View the Archived Webinar

For more information on increasing access to the CAC model for AI/AN children and families in your community, submit a TTA request at www.nativecac.org, or reach out to the WRCAC team at wrcac@rchsd.org.

Madison Stark

Training & Communications Coordinator

Western Regional Children's Advocacy Center


Madison Stark is a part-time Training and Communications Coordinator with Western Regional Children’s Advocacy Center (WRCAC). In this role, Madison supports TTA efforts focused on increasing access to CAC mental health services in rural and frontier communities. Madison also serves as WRCAC’s Salesforce Administrator. Prior to joining the WRCAC team in 2019, Madison earned a B.S. in Biology from UNC Chapel Hill and served two years with AmeriCorps, implementing trauma-informed programs for youth in San Diego County. Madison is currently working towards her MSW at the University of Pennsylvania and exploring the use of social justice frameworks in responding to and preventing childhood trauma.

[1] Rezal, A. (2020). Where Most Native Americans Live. U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/the-states-where-the-most-native-americans-live

[2] National Children's Alliance. (2023, January 4). A Fairer Future: Improving Services to Kids in Tribal Communities [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/494180421

[3] National Congress of American Indians. (2019). Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction.


[4] Native American and Indigenous Peoples FAQs. (2020). UCLA Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. https://equity.ucla.edu/know/resources-on-native-american-and-indigenous-affairs/native-american-and-indigenous-peoples-faqs/

[5] Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) - Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/diverse-populations/americanindian/icwa/

[6] Understanding the Impact of Intergenerational Trauma - Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/diverse-populations/americanindian/intergenerational-trauma/

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WRCAC is supported by cooperative agreement #15PJDP-22-GK-03062-JJVO awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.