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Native Sun News: Tribes document ICWA woes in South Dakota

Filed Under: Law | National
More on: icwa, native sun news, south dakota

The following story was written and reported by Evelyn Red Lodge Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Federal Indian Child Welfare Act directors representing six of the nine Native American tribes in South Dakota met Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, on the Yankton Reservation to review a draft report to members of the U.S. Congress. The report, commissioned by the Coalition of ICWA Directors and prepared with assistance from the Lakota People’s Law Project out of California, was drafted in response to inquiries from members of the U.S. House of Representatives — four Democrats and two Republicans — following revelations made in a National Public Radio investigative series last year on the state of Indian child welfare in South Dakota. Those participating in the meeting voted unanimously to endorse the report, and its submission will represent a significant step in addressing ongoing violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services. From left, Terry Yellow Fat, Standing Rock ICWA director; Dianne Garreau, Cheyenne River ICWA director; Ilene Brown, Standing Rock grandmother; Evelyn Pilcher, Lake Traverse (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) ICWA director; Raymond Cournoyer, Yankton ICWA director; and Juanita Scherich, Pine Ridge (Oglala Sioux) ICWA director. PHOTO COURTESY/LAKOTA PEOPLE’S LAW PROJECT

ICWA directors: Native foster kids profit S.D., may be over-drugged
By Evelyn Red Lodge
Native Sun News Correspondent

YANKTON — Questions concerning over-drugging of Native American foster children and questions from Congress spurred tribal Indian Child Welfare Act directors in South Dakota to draft a congressional report.

Under the federal ICWA law, American Indian children, when removed by a social service organization, are to be placed first with relatives and if that is not possible, they should be placed into Indian foster care.

According to the ICWA directors’ report, “As of July 2011, there were 440 Native American children in family run foster homes in South Dakota. There were 65 licensed Native American foster homes, with only 59 children placed in 24 of them. 39 Native American foster homes sat empty (62 percent) while 381 Native American children (87 percent, or nine out of 10) abided in non-Native foster care.”

On Nov. 29, six of the nine tribal ICWA directors gathered at a historical meeting to approve the congressional report draft they wrote. The three other directors had other obligations, according to Sara Nelson, executive director for both the Romero Institute and the Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP). Both organizations are based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the Lakota People’s Law Project is formerly based in Rapid City.

The questions from six congressmen and the ICWA directors followed an investigation by National Public Radio.

NPR created a firestorm in late 2011 after their year-long investigation into South Dakota’s foster care system under the Department of Social Services.

According to, “In October 2011, NPR aired ‘Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,’ a three-part investigative series by reporter Laura Sullivan that documented the arbitrary and unjustified removal of Native children from their homes, the lack of recourse for Indian family members of those children, and the fact that federal monies create an incentive for South Dakota agencies to place Indian children in non-Native care. The series was heard by more than 28 million listeners worldwide and was also recognized with a Peabody Award.”

Activities generated by the NPR series and known to Native Sun News include: Six United States congressmen have asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to conduct an investigation into the disproportionately high rates of Native children taken from their families by the DSS — and to hold an ICWA summit for that purpose.

Also, an ICWA gathering was held on the Crow Creek Reservation in central South Dakota to pair ICWA violation complainants with attorneys from the LPLP for a class-action suit.

At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota expected to file lawsuits against the DSS.

The National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution in part quoting the information contained in the NPR series and presented a resolution with regards to ICWA violations to the U.S. Congress.

Finally, the National Indian Child Welfare Association formalized its stance in its “Recommendations Regarding American Indian and Alaskan Native Child Welfare Issues in the United Sates for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

In the NPR series, Sullivan also reported that 700 Native children are removed from their homes and families each year, but recent research by the ICWA directors with technical assistance from LPLP found the number to be 741, according to the ICWA directors’ congressional report.

To date, the ICWA Summit requested has not been held. Nelson explained, “Here’s what happened. After the NPR report in 2011, there were six congressional people who asked (then-Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs) Larry Echo Hawk (to investigate claims made by NPR.)

“The problem is that he left that position. It was not followed through,” said Nelson.

Echo Hawk in April resigned his Indian Affairs post to take a position within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church.

“At a meeting in July the ICWA directors decided they would put together a response to those questions. We have been their technical support in this. Our research this summer and the final draft, they looked at it and they voted to send it in,” Nelson continued.

“Standing Rock’s tribal council has voted to do the same thing. There are three other tribal councils we think are going to do the same thing. It is more powerful if the tribal councils are on as well, and that’s coming,” she said.

In the report, the first is the questions raised by members of Congress, Nelson said, and the second part is on the question about whether or not there is over-drugging of the Native foster kids inside the system.

“They were looking at whether this was profitable for the state. NPR raised that question.

“The number of Native kids in foster care is 63 percent in South Dakota, while according to the report, Native American children make up approximately 13.8 percent of the child population in South Dakota,” she said. “The amount is disturbing.

“The argument from the (South Dakota) government is that half of those (placements occurred) where the tribal court has turned them over to DSS.”

Daniel Sheehan, general attorney for LPLP, explained further, “What NPR has said is that over 700 Native kids are taken by DSS every year and over 90 percent of them are placed by DSS in non-Native foster care settings, and this is a violation of ICWA because ICWA demands preferential treatment to the families.

“The previous (South Dakota) governor objected, saying when DSS takes children off the reservation they are acting as an agent for the tribe because the tribe does not have its own foster care programs,” said Sheehan.

“So, therefore, you cannot really say they are taken by the DSS. Moreover, when the DSS goes ahead and places these children off reservation they are acting on behalf of the tribe. So half of the kids are taken that way and — because the tribe is not bound to abide by ICWA — then they don’t have to. That was their argument via information sent to NPR.”

Also contained in the 33-page directors’ report, they point out that not only are federal dollars attracted for placing Native kids in non-Native foster care, but federal dollars are attracted through spending on pharmaceuticals for foster kids.

(Contact Evelyn Red Lodge at

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