Missing Threads: The Story of the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act

October 25, 2016 | Susan Reetz and James Botsford


A culture will die without its children. Yet, as explained by B. J. Jones, litigation director for Dakota Plains Legal Services and author of the American Bar Association legal manual The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook:


Before 1978, as many as 25 to 35 percent of the Indian children in certain states were removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian homes by state courts, welfare agencies, and private adoption agencies. Non-Indian judges and social workers—failing to appreciate traditional Indian childrearing practices—perceived day-to-day life in the children’s Indian homes as contrary to the children’s best interests.

These outplacements of Indian children can cause devastating results. National data indicate that Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide of any young adult population in the country.1 This suicide rate can be directly linked to children having been raised outside of their own cultural system.2

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a federal law that seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. ICWA, signed into law in 1978, is one of the most litigated federal Indian laws of the past 35 years, and arguably the most important in the lives of Native people and communities. It has unfortunately been misunderstood, misapplied, and too often completely ignored.

In 2005, Wisconsin was found to be in noncompliance with ICWA. Statistics and common knowledge indicated persistent and systemic problems with implementing the federal law. All 11 Wisconsin tribes agreed that something needed to change.

In 2008, a remarkable state coalition formed to develop and promote the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA). This coalition was comprised of tribal attorneys, tribal social services directors, Indian rights advocates, and representatives of the state (primarily from what is now the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families [DCF]). The tenacity and commitment of this coalition stretched continually over a period of nearly four years in pursuing this goal. For many, it was the most sustained and cogent collaboration of tribal and state energies they have ever participated in.

There were obstacles to overcome, some anticipated (private adoption attorneys) and some not (the Wisconsin State Bar’s Children and the Law Section). There were numerous competing interests to reconcile or overcome. Ambiguities in ICWA were addressed by fortifying the language in WICWA to clarify problematic clauses in a pro-Indian way consistent with the spirit and intent of the original ICWA. However, going that extra mile had the effect of increasing the adversarial obstacles to enactment. The 11 Wisconsin tribes and the state government stood together and persevered, and these issues were finally addressed in a long and moving state legislative hearing. WICWA passed unanimously—a rare feat—in 2009, resulting in what is arguably the strongest state enactment of ICWA anywhere in the country. This is a story of hard work and success, and ultimately, “the preservation of a culture’s future, not just its past.”3

Work on Missing Threads began in December 2012, with informal meetings, fact gathering, and identification of key interview subjects and archival images. In August 2013, the production team (with the help of project consultant James Botsford) received initial funding from the Midwest Child Welfare Implementation Center (MCWIC) and completed film interviews focused specifically on the creation of WICWA.

In 2014 and 2015, additional funding was secured from the Ho Chunk Nation, the Oneida Nation, and the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation. Interviews were filmed with Loa Porter (Ho-Chunk Nation) and Eugene White-Fish (Forest County Potawatomi). Both individuals were removed from their families as children and placed in non-Native foster homes. In the documentary, they share their experiences of being the only Indian child in their school class, the sense of loss from not having lived in their Native cultures as children, the persistent feeling of “otherness,” and their struggles to reconnect with their culture as adults.

This 57-minute film tells the story of why the Indian Child Welfare Act was codified into Wisconsin state law as the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act, as well as how it was drafted, enacted, and implemented. The two personal stories provide a counterpoint and serve as real examples of the need for such a meticulous and time-intensive action. Telling the story of the law’s creation and eventual enactment, interwoven with firsthand accounts from those who have been directly affected by outplacement, provides both macro- and micro-level views and makes the topic accessible to viewers from all backgrounds.

Missing Threads is available for viewing on YouTube; it is currently being used to educate the general public and to train attorneys, court officials, social workers, and others who work with Native children.

Note: Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the views of NCCD. Portions of this blog post have previously been published elsewhere.

This is one in a series of blog posts written by 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award winners and finalists. Read more about the series here


1 Jiang, C., Mitran, A., Miniño, A., & Ni, H. (2015). Racial and gender disparities in suicide among young adults aged 18–24: United States, 2009–2013. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Vital Statistics. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/suicide/racial_and_gender_2009_2013.pdf

2 Matheson, L. (1996). The politics of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Social Work41(2), 232–35.

3 Senator Bob Jauch, sponsor of the bill.