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OUR VIEW: State wrongly demonized in ICWA debate

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A conference that recently concluded in Rapid City brought to light some sad stories about foster care for American Indian children. Some Indian parents sobbed as they related stories about losing their kids.

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The Great Plains Indian Child Welfare Act Summit featured representatives from tribes in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Washington and Minnesota. They gathered to discuss the Indian Child Welfare Act, a national law enacted in 1978 to protect native culture and tribal identity from the unnecessary removal by state and federal agencies of Indian children in need of foster care.

There have been plenty of allegations about South Dakota's compliance with the law, so let's cut to the root of the criticism. What this controversy is all about is Indian children being placed in the homes of white foster parents. That's offensive to some people, because it smacks of a continuation of decades of abuses of Indians.

Unfortunately, this controversy has become a glorified shouting match between adults. Caught in the middle are children in need of foster care, and their safe placement should be the main concern of all involved parties. But the safe placement of Indian children is more complex than some tribal members or the national media would care to admit.

Here in South Dakota, where there are nine recognized tribes, we know the deep-rooted problems that confront many Indian reservations and make it likely that a high number of reservation children will need foster care.

A report last year by the New York Times, for example, noted how the country's 310 Indian reservations have violent crime rates that are more than two and a half times the national average. It noted that Indian women are 10 times as likely to be murdered than other Americans and are raped or sexually assaulted at a rate four times the national average, and that one in three Indian women has been raped or has experienced an attempted rape.

Gangs also are prevalent on some reservations, as is drug use, alcoholism and unemployment.

Meanwhile, Indian children make up 13.8 percent of the child population in South Dakota but constitute more than 56 percent of the children in foster care in the state.

We understand tribes are sovereign entities, and there is a government-to-government relationship that should be honored. The state should not arbitrarily take Indian children from their tribes and communities. And we agree that in some cases it's best for foster children to remain close to home.

But we also affirm that the main determinant in child placement should be the child's safety and well-being. Those considerations must trump all else -- even race, tribal membership and community.

Certainly, there are loving, protective and caring foster care providers on South Dakota's Indian reservations. But are there enough of them to shelter the inordinately high number of children that need such care in those places? We doubt it. In fact, we've reported on the trouble one tribe in our area has in getting qualified adults to show up for foster-care training.

What all this means is that the state of South Dakota is being wrongly demonized. The state's social workers are not carrying out a racist campaign to rip Indian children from their tribes. They're just doing their best to place foster children in safe environments, and they're probably having a hard time finding enough of those environments on Indian reservations, which are statistically shown to be more danger-prone than the rest of society.

Could the state do better at finding Indian homes for Indian children, in accordance with federal law? We suspect so, and we hope all sides -- tribes, and the state and federal governments -- can come together for the sake of the kids. We also think the state of South Dakota was wrong to forgo participation in the recent summit.

But we understand why state officials might be tired of getting labeled as racists for simply doing their jobs, and we know that no real progress will ever occur as long as one side is demonizing the other.

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