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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published June 04 2013

In SD, tribes fault state for undermining federal law aimed at saving kids

GRAND FORKS – As child advocates wrestle with abuse and protection issues at the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota, controversy has flared in neighboring South Dakota over what some allege is systematic violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The 1978 federal law mandates that family, tribal or other Indian homes are priorities in placing Indian children in foster care. Its stated intent is to “protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.”

But of 440 Indian children in foster care in South Dakota as of July 1, 2011, 381 – nearly 9 in 10 – resided in non-Indian foster homes. In one recent case, grandparents of a child and their tribe threatened to prosecute the state of South Dakota for kidnapping after the state chose a non-Indian foster care placement over the grandparents.

“The statistics are like a punch in the mouth,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a 2000 University of North Dakota graduate who later earned a law degree at the University of Denver. He works today as an attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota.

Iron Eyes was instrumental in organizing a three-day summit in Rapid City, S.D., two weeks ago involving ICWA compliance officers and other leaders from South Dakota’s nine Sioux tribes, federal officials and representatives from tribes in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Washington.

“It was a huge first step,” he said. “There were high-level people there from the federal executive, and several members of Congress sent representatives. We agreed on an effort to seek a funding solution to equip the tribes to handle their own child welfare services.”

State social services officials were invited but did not attend. They said they had not received sufficient advance information about the summit.

Sense of self

A big part of the problem in South Dakota and elsewhere, Indian advocates say, is that the state too quickly equates poverty with neglect when evaluating family members as potential foster caregivers. It is the same issue raised by Spirit Lake half a century ago, when 25 percent of the tribe’s children were living in non-Indian foster homes.

“I never grew up outside Indian communities,” said Iron Eyes, who helped draw up the agenda for the summit. “But I’ve met many Indian people who were taken out of their homes and communities, people who were wronged by South Dakota Social Services, and things happened to them.”

Even if Indian children are placed with good, caring non-Indian foster parents, “they lose a sense of place and self whenever this happens,” he said.

“We want to reintegrate these people who are now grown adults. And the kids now, we need to create ways to reintegrate them with the tribe, socially and spiritually.”

Another participant in the South Dakota summit conceded that some placements of Indian children in non-Indian foster homes worked out well. But even in those cases, there could be loss.

“Tribes are beginning to evaporate because these children are being raised in another culture,” Randy Pozos, representing the Lakota People’s Law Project, told the Rapid City Journal.

A kinship system

The idea for the summit and for finding ways to improve compliance with ICWA came out of an award-winning, three-part series of reports by National Public Radio in 2011. NPR’s analysis of state records showed that Indian children are placed in foster care in South Dakota at a disproportionate rate and that they are disproportionately placed in non-Indian homes.

State officials disputed the findings, but a separate assessment by the Coalition of Sioux Tribes for Children and Families backed the NPR report’s main claims.

“Native American children constitute approximately 13.5 percent of the child population of South Dakota, yet they make up on average 54 percent of youth who enter foster care in the state each year,” the coalition stated in a report submitted to Congress in January.

“We believe that South Dakota’s DSS (Department of Social Services) has created a conception of ‘neglect’ that is severely biased against American Indian families, especially those residing on reservations,” the report states.

“First, this conception inappropriately equates economic poverty with neglect. Second, it fails to understand the tribes’ kinship system of extended family care, a cultural tradition of the kind the ICWA was actually designed to protect.”

South Dakota DSS officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Spirit Lake ‘backlash’?

Everyone working on improving foster care and other social services for children in Indian Country is aware of the struggles that Spirit Lake has had, Iron Eyes said, including allegations of failures in the tribe’s child protection system.

“I don’t want to say anything against Spirit Lake,” he said. “They’re working on it. But it is on everyone’s mind.

“We took a trip to Washington, D.C., before the summit, to talk with people there about what we need” to improve tribe-based services for children. “We talked with a slew of congressional people and staffers. They’re very cognizant of the Spirit Lake situation, and we’re aware of the Spirit Lake backlash.”

The South Dakota Sioux tribes say they want authority over child placements, including direct funding for such services from the federal government. In most cases, that funding now is funneled through the state.

To guard against corruption, incompetence or “whatever was allowed to happen at Spirit Lake,” the tribes have proposed establishing a central office with representatives from each of the nine tribes, Iron Eyes said. That office would work in partnership with the federal government.

“We’d rather cut the state out of that process,” he said. “Because of our history in South Dakota, there’s always something divisive happening between Indian and non-Indian people, and that creates tension.”

State rules on foster care don’t always take into account that history “or the poverty culture (on reservations) since the killing of the buffalo. They (state foster care officials) require another bedroom for a child” placed in foster care. “Sometimes that’s not realistic.”

Caring about kids

One additional benefit to placing more authority with the tribes: “It would be a strong indicator to our children that we care about them,” Iron Eyes said.

“We know that sometimes Indian parents mess up,” he said. “They get a DUI, or they get caught smoking marijuana,” and sometimes children need to be removed from their homes for their protection. “But we shouldn’t be losing close to 90 percent of our kids going into the (state welfare) system,” he said.

“The long-range goal is to fix the system to allow for better enforcement of ICWA in South Dakota. There is a long legacy of the state plucking Indian children out of their homes and sending them to boarding schools and into adoption. When that happens, you lose human resources. You lose people who subscribe to your world view.

“We want to prevent the widespread breaking up of Indian families. We know that people are going to look at us, the tribes. ‘You highlighted all those statistics, all those problems. How are you fixing that?’ We are at the drawing table today, figuring out how we’re going to do this. We’ve taken a big step now, and we’re getting a good response from the federal folks.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald