A Chance Meeting Between Alumnae Generates New Tribal Child Welfare Research

Alumni; Research; Social Work

Several years ago, former Brown School classmates Mary Beth Jäger, MSW ’10, and Adrian “Addie” T. Smith, JD/MSW ’12, ran into each other at a conference. “Indian Country is small and with both of us working in Indian Country, this was not surprising,” Jäger said.

At lunch they began discussing their jobs—Jäger’s as a research analyst at the Native Nations Institute (NNI) at the University of Arizona and Smith’s as a government affairs associate at the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). Intrigued by the intersection of their work, the idea of a possible collaboration started to percolate.

After further discussion between Sarah Kastelic, MSW ‘97, Ph.D ’08, the NICWA executive director and Miriam Jorgensen, NNI research director and Washington University adjunct professor, a research collaboration between NNI and NICWA formed. Another WUSTL alumna, Caitlin Donald, MSW ‘14, provided research support.

This fall the NNI and the NICWA released the graphical summary, “Protecting Our Children Through Tribal Law: A Review of 100+ Tribal Child Welfare Codes (Part II).” The second set of qualitative and quantitative analyses from an ongoing project on tribal child welfare policy, the summary answers the question, “How are tribes asserting their sovereignty to protect their children?” in the areas of child welfare jurisdiction, child abuse reporting, paternity, and tribal-state child welfare relations.


  • To help protect children from abuse and neglect, 70% of the tribal codes make specific requirements for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.
  • To ensure paternal rights and responsibilities, 60% of tribal codes create processes for establishing or acknowledging paternity.
  • Whereas the Indian Child Welfare Act acknowledges that tribes may take jurisdiction over their children, 61% of tribal codes assert explicit jurisdiction over tribal citizen children on and off the reservation

Researchers reviewed 107 publically available, U.S.-based tribal child welfare codes representing tribes with populations ranging from 50 to 18,000 citizens. Researchers sought out the most up-to-date tribal child welfare codes available for each tribe, reporting that approximately 45% of the 107 codes were amended after 2000.

The research team, which includes Jäger, Smith, and NNI Senior Researcher Rachel Starks, analyzed over 100 variables on the topics of culture, jurisdiction, tribal-state relationships, child abuse reporting, paternity, foster care, termination of parental rights, and adoption.

For more findings, access Part I and Part I


Adrian (Addie) Tobin Smith, (former) Government Affairs Staff Attorney, National Indian Child Welfare Association

Mary Beth Jäger  (Citizen Potawatomi), Native Nations Institute, University of Arizona

Rachel Starks (Zuni/Navajo), Native Nations Institute, University of Arizona