Summit scheduled on Indian foster careBIA investigating allegations that state routinely breaks federal law.
By: Kristi Eaton, The Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS — Indian Child Welfare Act directors from South Dakota’s nine American Indian tribes and federal officials are planning a summit focusing on Indian child foster care in the state after allegations surfaced that the state was routinely breaking the law.
The South Dakota Indian Child Welfare Act Directors’ Coalition is working in conjunction with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to plan the summit, which was announced this week and is scheduled for April 15-17 in Rapid City.
The ICWA directors’ coalition also submitted a report to Congress that details how they believe the state of South Dakota is willfully violating federal law by removing too many American Indian children from their homes and placing them in foster care with non-Indian families.
“You know, it’s been a long time coming,” said Raymond Cournoyer, ICWA director on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation and co-chair of the ICWA directors’ coalition.
Cournoyer said the summit will include testimony from grandmothers who have worked unsuccessfully to get their grandchildren back from foster care, discussions on tribal codes, best practices and funding strategies, among other things.
The summit and report are in response to a 2011 National Public Radio series that said the state routinely broke the Indian Child Welfare Act and disrupted the lives of hundreds of Indian families each year.
Under federal law, Indian children removed from homes must be placed with relatives or put in foster care with other Indian families except in unusual circumstances.
The three-part NPR report, which was based on an analysis of state records, said a disproportionate number of Indian children removed from their homes in South Dakota each year are sent to foster care in non-Indian homes or group homes. The report also claimed Indian children are placed in South Dakota’s foster care system at a disproportionate rate.
But state officials have called the NPR stories inaccurate, unfair and biased, but acknowledged a disproportionate number of Indian children are involved in the child welfare system because the state receives more referrals for alleged abuse and neglect involving them.
Following the report, six bipartisan congressmen asked the Department of Interior to investigate the alleged ICWA violations made in the NPR report and find out what the BIA intended to do if the violations were found to be true.
The BIA said it was planning a summit to address the allegations, but due to various issues, including the resignation of one Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs and the confirmation of another, it never occurred last year.
That’s when the coalition of ICWA directors came together and created their own report and started planning the summit with the help of the BIA.
Diane Garreau, ICWA director from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, said it has been frustrating for the ICWA directors that the summit didn’t happen by the original date, but she said she is glad it is happening now because there are issues that need to be addressed.
“One of the feelings I’ve always had in dealing with the state of South Dakota is they see Native children as different. That they’re not children of South Dakota. They’re identified as Indian children, and that’s really sad, too, because it seems like we’re separate,” she said.
A big part of an ICWA director’s job includes legal work and working with attorneys, which costs money — money the tribes aren’t getting, Garreau said.
One case the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is currently pursuing surrounds a 5-year-old girl attempting to be adopted in Virginia. The girl is the daughter of a man living in Alabama who is enrolled with the tribe. The tribe has been battling to have a say in the adoption, Garreau said, and will go to court in Virginia in May to make their case.
“If we are not on top of it, this is what happens, you know, they try to slip these kids through the cracks,” she said.
Kristin Kellar, spokeswoman for the South Dakota Department of Social Services, said the agency had not yet heard about the ICWA summit and have not yet determined whether the agency will participate.