Tribal Coalition Report Finds South Dakota 'Willfully' Violated Child Welfare Law
South Dakota's foster care system "systematically violated the spirit and the letter" of a law meant to protect Native American children, a coalition of tribal directors from the state's nine Sioux tribes said in a report released Thursday night. The report comes a year after NPR aired a series questioning whether the law was being enforced.
The 30-year-old Indian Child Welfare Act says native children must be placed with relatives or their tribes if they are removed from their homes, except in unusual circumstances. The coalition said the state appears to have violated the law willfully, "and it may have done so at least partly to bring federal tax dollars into the state."
An official with South Dakota's Department of Social Services said in a statement that the department has not seen the report and cannot comment on it. They have said in the past they believe in the law and money has never influenced their program.
The group plans to send the report to Congress and is pushing lawmakers to force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to hold a promised summit to look into the issue. So far the BIA has failed to hold that summit. The BIA did not respond to requests for comment.
Update at 7:37 p.m. ET. 'Reviewing... Pressing Matters':
The BIA sent us this statement:
"Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn was confirmed on October 6, 2012 and is diligently reviewing a number of pressing matters affecting tribes across Indian Country. He understands the critical nature of these particular issues and the tremendous importance of protecting the welfare of Indian children."
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A coalition of South Dakota's nine tribes has found that the state is willfully violating a federal law meant to protect Native American children. The coalition has written a report about this and intends to send it to Congress. The report says the state is placing too many Native children in white foster care. NPR's Laura Sullivan explains.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: There's a 30-year-old law called the Indian Child Welfare Act. It requires states to place Native American children with relatives or tribal members if they are removed from their homes, except in the most unusual cases. A coalition of tribal directors in South Dakota believe that is not happening.
TERRY YELLOW FAT: Enough. Enough. Enough is enough. We can no longer allow this to happen.
SULLIVAN: Terry Yellow Fat is in charge of overseeing the Indian Child Welfare Act for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is chairman of the coalition. He says their investigation found that Native children were overwhelmingly placed in white foster homes while Native homes sat empty.
YELLOW FAT: So many times I run into adults that have returned to the reservation. They're lost. I see the lost children of Standing Rock because they didn't grow up in our culture, and they were always foreign to the culture that they grew up in in that foster home. They never felt that they belonged.
SULLIVAN: The report found that the state has, quote, "systematically violated the spirit and the letter of the law." It says the state appears to have done this willfully, and it may have done so at least partly to bring federal tax dollars into the state. An official with the Department of Social Services said in a statement that the department has not seen the report and cannot comment on it. But they have said in the past that money has never influenced their program and that they are trying to find more Native foster care providers. An NPR series last year found that 87 percent of Native American children in foster care in South Dakota were placed in white foster homes.
DANIEL SHEEHAN: This is a major act of solidarity on the part of all nine of the reservations.
SULLIVAN: Daniel Sheehan is legal counsel for the Lakota People's Law Project, a nonprofit law firm that helped the tribal directors put together the report. He says the group took up the issue after Congress asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate and hold a summit meeting. The BIA has so far failed to hold that summit. The BIA did not respond to requests for comment.
SHEEHAN: Attempting to deal with the state has gotten everybody nowhere. The state is not acting in good faith.
SULLIVAN: Congressman Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, is part of a bipartisan group in Washington looking into the state's compliance with the law.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM MORAN: This is something that needs to be addressed. I think we have given more than adequate time to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and certainly the state of South Dakota to correct this. And there doesn't seem to be adequate progress.
SULLIVAN: The tribal directors expect to send their report to Congress in the next few weeks. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.