Administered by the Child Welfare League of America and funded by a federal contract from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the Indian Adoption Project lasted from 1958 through 1967. During an era when matching dominated adoption practice, it placed 395 Native American children from 16 western states with white families in Illinois, Indiana, New York, Massachusetts, Missouri, and other states in the East and Midwest. (Only 14 children were adopted by Southern families and one child was adopted in Puerto Rico.) Approximately fifty public and private adoption agencies cooperated with the project, but the largest number of children were placed by agencies that were leaders in African-American adoptions and services to children of color: Louise Wise Services and Spence-Chapin Adoption Services (both of New York) and the Children’s Bureau of Delaware.
Becuse tribes are legally considered sovereign nations, the incorporation of Indian children into non-Indian families constituted a kind of international as well as trans-racial adoption, paralleling the adoptions of foreign children from Europe and Asia after 1945. The Indian Adoption Project was perhaps the single most important exception to race-matching, an almost universal policy at the time. It aspired to systematically place an entire child population across lines of nation, culture, and race.
The project’s Director, Arnold Lyslo, and many other child welfare leaders viewed the Indian Adoption Project as an example of enlightened adoption practice, made possible by a decrease in the climate of racial prejudice that had formerly prevented the adoption of Native American children. “One can no longer say that the Indian child is the ‘forgotten child’,” Lyslo proudly declared upon the project’s completion. The Adoption Resource Exchange of North America (ARENA), founded in 1966, was the immediate successor to the Indian Adoption Project. ARENA was the first national adoption resource exchange devoted to finding homes for hard-to-place children. It continued the practice of placing Native American children with white adoptive parents for a number of years in the early 1970s.
A significant outcome study of families who adopted through the Indian Adoption Project was conducted from 1960 to 1968 by David Fanshel, a well-known child welfare researcher. Fanshel studied the motivations of parents and the outcomes for children in approximately one-quarter of all the adoptions arranged through the Indian Adoption Project. In Far from the Reservation, Fanshel concluded that the vast majority of children and families had adjusted extremely well, but he also anticipated criticism. “It may be that Indian leaders would rather see their children share the fate of their fellow Indians than lose them in the white world. It is for the Indian people to decide.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Native American activists and their allies challenged the idea that the Indian Adoption Project was a triumph for civil rights and equality. They denounced the project as the most recent in a long line of genocidal policies toward native communities and cultures. Tribal advocates worked hard for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which reacted against the Indian Adoption Project by making it extremely difficult for Native American children to be adopted by non-native parents. In June 2001, Child Welfare League Executive Director Shay Bilchik legitimated Native concerns, formally apologizing for the Indian Adoption Project at a meeting of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. He put the Child Welfare League of America on record in support of the Indian Child Welfare Act. “No matter how well intentioned and how squarely in the mainstream this was at the time,” he said, “it was wrong; it was hurtful; and it reflected a kind of bias that surfaces feelings of shame.”