South Dakota tribes to reinvent foster care

South Dakota has a number of large Indian rese...
South Dakota has a number of large Indian reservations (shown in pink). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As fears mount over state misconduct, tribes focus on creating their own foster care systems

Daniel Simmons-Ritchie (RAPID CITY JOURNAL)

Following mounting anger over charges that the state has routinely and illegally placed Native American children with non-native foster parents, South Dakota tribes gathered Monday in Rapid City to discuss how they could form their own tribal-run foster care systems.

The discussion, hosted by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe at the Rushmore Plaza, marked the first day of the three-day Oceti Sakowin Conference. The meeting is the third in a series of quarterly summits between the state’s nine Lakota tribes to discuss common concerns.

While the afternoon discussion touched upon preservation of sacred sites and opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, the morning was dominated by debate over alleged abuses by the state of South Dakota under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Following a report by National Public Radio in 2011, concern has been building that the Department of Social Services has repeatedly violated ICWA, a law enacted in 1978 to ensure the preservation of Native American culture by ensuring that native children taken by social workers are placed in Native American foster homes. The NPR report found that 90 percent of native children in South Dakota are placed in non-native homes.

Since a conference held by the tribes in Rapid City in May, attended by Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Interior Department‘s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, the Lakota have focused increasingly on steps to wrestle away federal funding from South Dakota and create native-run foster care systems.

The $56 million that’s going to the state of South Dakota should be coming to us so we can keep our families together,” Chase Iron Eyes, a private attorney and member of the Standing Rock Sioux, told attendees. “That’s the bottom line.

Speaking during a recess, Dan Sheehan, chief counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, a non-profit that has provided expertise to the Lakota since 2006 about ICWA violations, said that it is looking increasingly likely that the tribes could attain that federal funding.

Sheehan, an attorney who was involved in cases surrounding the Iran-Contra scandals in the 1980s and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, said that his group had recently met with officials in the U.S. Department of the Interior that favored creating an application process to give funds directly to Lakota tribes.

“The money will be taken away from the state and given directly to the tribes,” Sheehan said, adding that he was reasonably confident that could happen within the next two years.

Monday’s discussion also focused on potential models for native-run foster care systems. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Oglala Sioux have a tribal-run foster care system that is partially funded by the state of South Dakota.

The administering agency, called Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi (LOWO), only handles cases on the reservation and still must follow South Dakota rules that have been criticized by Native American advocates. Still, with a focus on traditional Lakota culture like purification ceremonies, reformers see it as a path to repair a system that has failed natives.

That doesn’t mean starting their own systems will be simple for tribes. Emily Iron Cloud, executive director of LOWO, said that the planning work alone was hugely time consuming.

“You need to have the community’s voice, their vision for what kind of agency they want to see, and there’s a lot of work that needs to happen,” she said.

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