How we calculated disproportionality in Montana foster care

The story was originally published by the Montana Free Press with support from our 2023 Data Fellowship.

As Montana Free Press has reported, Native American children in Montana are involved in out-of-home foster care placements at roughly five times the rate of white children. That statistic raises numerous questions about the factors pushing families toward the foster care system, resource inequities and systemic biases, and what child welfare authorities can do to ensure that more Native families aren’t funneled into the child protection system in the first place.

This project, supported by a data reporting fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, is an effort to document and identify answers to that problem. We were guided by the premise that while social service workers have a responsibility to protect children by removing them from neglectful or abusive situations, federal officials and national policy advisers urge child welfare agencies to prioritize keeping families safely together. Many members of Native communities argue that maintaining an Indigenous child’s connection with their family, tribe and culture is particularly important after assimilationist child removal efforts were endorsed and carried out by the U.S. government for more than a century.

“You think about the future of your nation, nation building, hope for the future,” said Dr. Maegan Rides At The Door, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and co-founder of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, based in Missoula. “What does our future look like? How can we continue to revitalize our culture if we don’t have our kids here?”

As it turns out, compiling reliable and comprehensive data about what’s happening to Native children in foster care is incredibly challenging, given the siloed and multi-jurisdictional nature of child welfare in the state. At a minimum, child protection work in Montana involves 56 county prosecutors’ offices, six state health department regions, and seven tribal nations with distinct child welfare programs — not to mention various tribal contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and family law cases spread across a smattering of tribal and state court systems.

What does our future look like? How can we continue to revitalize our culture if we don’t have our kids here?


That landscape makes it hard to find even seemingly basic information. There’s no single database that records the number of Native kids in foster care based on reporting by tribes, the state health department and the federal BIA. Tracking reasons for removal, whether children are placed in kinship or non-kinship homes, the length of time children spend in foster care, and rates of family reunification is similarly difficult. That’s partly because tribes, as sovereign nations, control information about cases within their jurisdictions, and government-to-government relationships between the state and tribes can be precarious. 

“You have come upon the real issues and the tensions that I think are there,” Dr. Deana Around Him, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a child welfare researcher at the national research organization Child Trends, told MTFP. Even within specific tribal jurisdictions in the U.S., collecting, tracking and analyzing child welfare data is a heavy lift that requires significant infrastructure investments and consistent dedication. 

“The data sovereignty conversation is kind of still in its emerging phase in the United States, and then it’s at a very high level and not at a practical level,” Around Him continued. “So to be able to actually coordinate with state and federal partners to house and have the data, have the protocols in place, the research codes in place to manage that data, we’re not there yet.”

Child welfare experts point out that it’s difficult to find ways to interrupt the flow of Native families into foster care without reliable data collection and information sharing about how children and families end up in the system in the first place. And expecting individual child welfare workforces to tackle that effort alone, particularly at the local or regional level, is burdensome at best and quixotic at worst. Our reporting demonstrated that people working within these systems are most focused on handling the cases they’re directly responsible for, rather than looking for collective solutions across jurisdictions.

Image of a banner

Crow Tribal Social Services on the Crow Reservation on Jan. 3, 2024.

Tailyr Irvine / MTFP

Roxanne Gourneau, a member of the tribal executive board of the Fort Peck Reservation and a former tribal court judge, told us, “You’re doing the research, so you see the silos. Everybody you’re talking to don’t see it … The individuals that you’re looking for, basically, they don’t know that those disjoints exist. They just don’t.”

Most sources we interviewed were frank about wanting better information about foster care to help track trends and find solutions. Some indicated they’d struck a balance between frustration with the status quo and a desire to make as much progress as possible.

“Everything has bad data,” said Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson, an expert on child welfare law and a member of Montana’s Court Improvement Program, which focuses on improving legal processes for foster care cases. “We have data gaps, so what can we do about it?”

With that imperfection in mind, we set out to understand what’s driving racial disproportionality in foster care in Montana, and to locate possible solutions to that problem, based on the data that is available. We signed research agreements with the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect managed by Cornell University and accessed almost 48,000 entries of federally collected data on youth in foster care in Montana from 2012 to 2021, the most recent decade’s worth of data. 

Everything has bad data … We have data gaps, so what can we do about it?


Each row in these reports, known as the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), represents one child, identified only by a reference number, who was in foster care at some point that year. The reports do not document whether the state, a tribal government or the BIA is responsible for each case, making it difficult to determine how much tribal information is represented in each year of data. And though the database lists the child’s county of residence, nearly all Montana counties have such small population sizes that the county names are shielded from disclosure. Child welfare authorities take great pains to keep the identities of children and families involved in foster care private.

In each year of available data, we identified children who were categorized as only American Indian/Alaska Native (the AFCARS designation for Native American children), American Indian/Alaska Native in combination with other racial identities, or only white. We filtered out children who had exited foster care during each year, following a conservative strategy for determining annual caseloads, and used the resulting numbers to calculate the rate of foster care involvement for each racial group based on their respective youth populations as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2012 to 2021. We then averaged the annual rates across all 10 years of data. 

After checking our math and methods with analysts inside and outside the MTFP newsroom, we found that American Indian/Alaska Native children in Montana were involved in foster care at an average rate of about 44 per 1,000, compared to about 9 per 1,000 white children. Children who were identified as Native in combination with other races made up a much smaller group — only 218 cases per year on average, versus more than 1,000 annual cases for single-race Native and white children, respectively — and were represented in foster care at an average rate of just under 7 per 1,000. 

Image of a building

The Yellowstone District Court building in Billings on Jan. 4, 2024.

Tailyr Irvine / MTFP

All these statistics almost certainly undercount the number of Native American children in foster care in Montana across different jurisdictions. Through interviews with the state health department and tribal social service administrators, we learned that among tribally managed cases, only those that qualify for special federal funding are routinely reported to the state database from which AFCARS collects its information. That means the AFCARS report on Montana, and therefore MTFP’s analysis, includes information about some cases handled by tribal social services, but certainly not all. Separately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged but did not provide answers to a list of questions submitted two months before our February publication date about the caseloads its workers handle through contracts with various tribal nations.

Our reporting included other data findings beyond the rate of foster care involvement of different racial groups. We dug into the prevalence of caseworker-identified neglect in child welfare cases and the relative rarity of cases involving abuse. We examined the growing trend of parental drug abuse as a factor for foster care involvement across all racial groups in Montana, and profiled a maternal health program designed to address that problem. We also spent time in a dedicated Indian Child Welfare Act court in Yellowstone County, where parents and court staff are working to reunify as many families as possible. 

The entirety of this series, Keeping the Kids, can be found here.  

Please send questions and comments about this work to