According to Indigenous traditions, children are gifts from the Creator. Indigenous communities give root to this belief in laws and traditions on how to care for their children. This includes situations when parents are unable to care for them directly.

There are many permanency options for Indigenous children that offer love, stability and connection to their community, culture and heritage. Customary care arrangements (including custom adoption), guardianship, and kinship care are all ways to nurture an Indigenous child or youth. This page focuses on customary care arrangements.

What is customary care?

Customary care is a term for Indigenous ways of caring for children whose parents cannot care for them. Sometimes customary care is meant to be temporary until the child can return to their parents. Other times it’s meant to be long-term or permanent, like with custom adoption.

These arrangements focus on keeping kids in or near their home community or culture, so they can continue to grow up around people they know and their culture, language, and spiritual practices. These are all things that help a child or youth feel safe and secure, and know that they belong.

New laws around customary care

Recent changes to laws around Indigenous child welfare policies should make customary care easier to arrange by giving greater autonomy to Indigenous peoples. You can learn more about the changes here.

Indigenous Child and Family Service Agencies and the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) work closely with Indigenous communities to place Indigenous children as close to their kin and home as possible. 

The impacts of keeping these connections go deep: it helps Indigenous peoples preserve culture and language and reclaim authority over their jurisdiction, and minimizes the ongoing effects of colonialism on children, families and communities. 

Custom adoption

A custom adoption refers generally to how a child is cared for under Indigenous caregiving practices and Indigenous customary law. It’s not an adoption in the way that Canadian law means it, as these practices and laws aren’t meant to replace a child’s relationships with their parents, family, and community with new ones. But it implies more of a sense of permanency than other customary care arrangements might.

There’s no single definition or set of steps to follow for custom adoption. It depends on the band or community’s practices. One common thread is that custom adoptions usually maintain the child’s connections to their birth family and community. 

We acknowledge that adoption is a Settler term with painful associations for many Indigenous people and that other words (including words in a person’s traditional language) may be preferred. We use “custom adoption” here as a close approximation for the concept. 

Legal status of custom adoption

According to Section 46 of the Adoption Act, custom adoptions may be legally recognized without going through a non-Indigenous adoption process, though the family must apply to have it recognized as legally binding by the courts. 

As of 2019, there’s no publicly available information about whether anyone has ever put this into practice and applied to the courts to have a custom adoption recognized. 

Indigenous adoption services

Any Indigenous community can facilitate a custom adoption according to its traditions. Some Indigenous communities have special adoption committees or agencies that look after adoptions in their area. 

If you’re looking to pursue a custom adoption, you may want to work with an Indigenous Child and Family Service Agency if there is one in your community.

See a list of all Indigenous Child and Family Services Agencies here. These are also known as Delegated Aboriginal Agencies.

Permanency with non-Indigenous families

While the goal is to place Indigenous children and youth with Indigenous families, sometimes it’s not possible. We recognize that this is largely the result of colonialism, which has caused enormous damage to Indigenous families and communities. The Belonging Network is committed to striving for truth and reconciliation, and to supporting Indigenous people in reclaiming their jurisdiction over their children and child welfare systems.

When an Indigenous family cannot be found,a non-Indigenous family may be considered. This requires approval from the child or youth’s nation or community, an official exception from MCFD, and a plan for how to create cultural safety for the child or youth. Parents should be prepared to take specialized cultural education training and to commit to building relationships with their child’s home community.

Partnership with Indigenous Perspectives Society

The Belonging Network is proud to be partners with the Indigenous Perspectives Society (IPS), an organization that provides specialized training and consultation to enrich Indigenous cultural understanding.

IPS offers specialized training to parents and caregivers of Indigenous children, which anyone can request from them at a cost. Each Belonging Network employee has taken IPS’ basic training, while our Family Support team has completed specialized training to better support our Indigenous clients.

IPS has a long-standing history of supporting Indigenous children, families and communities impacted by child welfare.


The Belonging Network strives to create culturally sensitive resources in partnership with Indigenous people and organizations that best support Indigenous families and children. 

We are committed to this journey and are continually learning and improving this page. If you see a way that this page or our other resources could be improved, or if we’ve made a mistake, please don’t hesitate to let us know by emailing us. Contact us.

Cultural Planning webinar | Belonging Network

Adoptive Parents of Indigenous Children | Facebook group

The power in cultural connection | Belonging Network

Caring for Indigenous families | Belonging Network