Indian child issue has other sideTribal official: Too few Native families ‘step up’ to take foster kids.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
WAGNER — Though South Dakota has suffered repeated criticism recently for placing too many American Indian children with white foster families, at least one tribal official who’s participated in the criticism acknowledges there are not enough Indian families “stepping up” to take Indian children.
Raymond Cournoyer, Indian Child Welfare Act director for the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said a lack of certified Indian foster homes is one of the reasons children are referred to the state for placement.
Cournoyer has been in charge of his tribe’s ICWA program for 10 years and said he’s been working to make more Indian foster families available. He said many Indian children are separated from their families due to drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse and violence.
“At the same time, I don’t have Native American families stepping up to the plate to take responsibility for our children,” he said.
At a recent training for foster families, Cournoyer said only three of 45 prospective families attended — and just one of the families was Indian.
“I was very, very disappointed that our Native people didn’t step up to the plate,” he said. “If there aren’t any foster families, what are you going to do?”
Cournoyer said if a qualifying home cannot be found for a child within the ICWA system, the case is forwarded to the state.
National Public Radio did a series of reports last year on South Dakota Indian children being taken from their homes and placed too frequently with white foster parents.
On Nov. 29, six of the state’s nine tribal ICWA directors, including Cournoyer, endorsed and agreed to send to Congress a report claiming South Dakota has willfully violated federal law by removing too many Indian children from their homes and placing them in foster care with non-Indian families.
The report found that while Indian children make up 13.8 percent of the child population in South Dakota, they make up on average 56.26 percent of youth in foster care in the state. The report also found that as of July 2011, there were 440 Indian children in family run foster homes in South Dakota. Only 59 of those children were placed in Indian foster homes while 39 Indian foster homes sat empty.
The issue of Indian childcare has been especially controversial in Cournoyer’s area, where the community of Wagner is mourning the July death of 2-year-old Rielee Lovell. The girl was found dead in a closet while in the care of two tribal members who are not her parents and were both alleged to be high on methamphetamine.
It’s not publicly known how Lovell came to be in the care of Taylor and Laurie Cournoyer. Frances Zephier, a Wagner resident who has been outspoken about meth use among Yankton Sioux Tribe members, claims Lovell was placed in the Cournoyers’ care as a foster child.
Zephier claims a tribal employee under the Indian Child Welfare Act has been placing Indian foster children in Indian homes where meth users, sellers and manufacturers are known to gather.
“Because they get money for fostering children,” Zephier said.
She claims an ICWA employee got both money and drugs from people in whose homes she placed children. Recently, the person identified by Zephier was arrested and charged with felony drug possession, but the charges were later dropped.
The Daily Republic is withholding the person’s name because Zephier’s claims about the placement scandal could not be substantiated.
Cournoyer said none of his assistants has engaged in such behavior.
“Most of it is hearsay, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “When we do relative placement, we check them out and never, ever place a child in a home where people are doing drugs.”
Cournoyer said his office had nothing to do with the placement of Rielee Lovell and that her mother requested Laurie and Taylor Cournoyer as temporary guardians through court proceedings. During Taylor Cournoyer’s sentencing recently, the prosecution indicated the couple took in Lovell and another 18-month-old child when no one else would. Besides that, little has been said publicly about how Lovell ended up in the Cournoyers’ care.
Raymond Cournoyer said he wasn’t sure why, but knows Lovell and her siblings lived with Laurie and Taylor Cournoyer for about six months.
“She would stop by the office, show us the kids and they looked happy,” Raymond Cournoyer said of Laurie.
“When she was in town, she would get assistance from us and we’d help her with groceries and other things.”
Cournoyer said his office looks into situations like Lovell’s and removes children if they are in an unsafe environment. In Lovell’s case, he said he never had any inclination she was in an unsafe home.
Taylor Cournoyer pleaded guilty recently to one count of possession of meth and one count of keeping a place for the use or sale of controlled substances. He originally pleaded not guilty to those charges plus five counts of abuse or cruelty to a minor and one count of failure to notify law enforcement of the death of a child. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Laurie Cournoyer is still charged with five counts of abuse or cruelty to a minor. She is also charged with one count of possession of meth, possession of unauthorized articles in jail and ingesting meth.
The cruelty to a minor charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine. For possessing meth, she could get up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
“There is a huge, huge meth problem on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, so you have to be very, very careful about placement of the children,” Raymond Cournoyer said. “As far as I know, our program has never placed any children in harm’s way.”
Frances Zephier is not convinced.
“As far as Raymond (Cournoyer), I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can throw him,” Zephier said.More from around the web