A cultural approach to child welfare practice within American Indian/Alaska Native communities

Date Published: 

Lucero, N.M, & Leake R. (2016). Expressions of culture in American Indian/Alaska Native tribal child welfare work: A qualitative meta-synthesis. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 10(3), 327-347. 

Reviewed by: 
Jennifer Nutton

Few studies have been published that focus specifically on examining child welfare practices within American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. The purpose of this study was to fill this gap by conducting research on understanding the ways in which Tribal Child Welfare Programs (TCWPs) integrate tribal culture into child welfare practice. TCWPs are located within AIAN communities and are structured similarly to state child welfare agencies in that the mandate for practice and service provision is to prioritize the safety and well-being of children over all other concerns.

This study used a qualitative meta-synthesis methodological approach to answer the following research questions: (1) Are there elements of tribal child welfare practice that are distinctly cultural and different from child welfare practice in non-tribal contexts? and (2) How is tribal culture and context expressed in tribal child protection services practice? Given the lack of published research, the sample included only three studies conducted from 2010 to 2013 but included data from over 75 TCWPs. Within these studies, data were collected from workers in tribal-run programs and Bureau of Indian Affairs-administered programs. The authors analyzed data using Noblit and Hare’s (2008) meta-ethnographic approach to qualitative synthesis and Aquirre and Bolton’s (2014) qualitative interpretative meta-synthesis (QIMS) approach.

Four themes emerged that describe the practice elements in TCWPs that are different from child welfare practice in non-tribal settings. The tribal approach to practice incorporated: (1) cultural values (e.g., “being of service to one’s people”); (2) cultural definition of native child well-being (e.g., “being nurtured and protected by family, kinship network, and community); (3) intentions of tribal child welfare practice (e.g., “preserving tribal culture by strengthening children’s cultural knowledge and cultural involvement); and (4) practice mechanisms for incorporating culture (e.g., “use of cultural self” and “worker relatedness”). These themes formed the basis for a Tribal Child Welfare Practice Framework.

Methodological notes: 

While this qualitative meta-synthesis makes a significant contribution to an understudied area of research, there are limitations worth noting such as the lack of generalizability. The authors note that findings from this study cannot be generalized not only due to the small sample size and qualitative approach but also because of the diversity among tribal nations and differences in TCWPs’ capacity to deliver services. This is especially noteworthy given the focus of this study is on cultural expressions, which vary widely across the hundreds of AIAN communities.