Tribes on child welfare: We can do it better

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But ability to administer foster care has doubters in Indian Country

Jul. 27, 2013, Written by Steve Young

At issue

GRANTS: Members of the Lakota People’s Law Project, a nonprofit that advises Native Americans about Indian Child Welfare violations, say they have been talking to government officials in Washington about money for South Dakota’s nine tribes.
GOAL: Help tribes develop their own foster care and child protection programs.

DIVISION: Though the state says it would support such efforts, there are some involved in tribal child protection who question whether the tribes could successfully run those programs on their own.

Juanita Scherich remembers how they cut her hair, how they made her scrub and wash every day, as if a trim and a bath would take the “Indian” out of a 9-year-old child.

Though it was decades ago, Scherich can’t forget how no one in a string of Rapid City foster homes spoke her native language. How none of them prayed to tunkasila, great spirit-father of the Lakota. How no one offered her even a whiff of her tribal culture.

“I lost everything in 2½ years in foster care,” the Indian Child Welfare Act director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe says. “My language, my culture, I had to relearn it all. That wasn’t right.”

Today, she and tribal officials across South Dakota are prepared to change that. With 35 years of federal ICWA legislation on the books and 80 percent of Native children still showing up in white foster homes, the tribes insist they are ready to take over foster care and child protection services, and to keep more of their children on the reservations.

The key to accomplishing that, they say, is directly accessing federal dollars now being funneled through the state.

“If we had direct funding,” Scherich said, “we would see that more of our children are staying with relatives, staying with our own people.”

But how many federal dollars are they talking about? A National Public Radio series that aired in October 2011 suggested the state receives $100 million a year to subsidize its foster care program. The Coalition of Sioux Tribes for Children and Families and the Lakota People’s Law Project cited that number in a report to Congress in January.

Danny Sheehan, chief counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, a nonprofit that provides expertise to the Lakota about ICWA violations, suspects the amount is at least in the $56 million range.

“Federal money comes in now to the state under various provisions of Title IV of the Social Security Act,” Sheehan said. “Our best estimate is that 56 percent of the children in foster care are Native Americans. So we’re talking about a good percentage of that $56 million.”

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