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SD tribal leaders seek federal foster care help

By Chet Brokaw

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PIERRE (AP) — Leaders of South Dakota's nine Sioux tribes will spend time in Washington, D.C., this week seeking federal help in a long-running dispute over state government's handling of foster care for Native American children.

The tribal officials allege that the state removes too many American Indian children from their homes and places them in foster care with non-Indian families. They contend the state is violating the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires that Native American children removed from homes must be placed with relatives or put in foster care with other American Indian families except in unusual circumstances.

State officials have repeatedly said they comply with the law.

The tribal officials will seek planning grants to create their own tribal foster care programs with direct federal funding. They also will ask the federal officials to investigate a case in which they say state employees were unfairly prosecuted after working to protect some Native American children who were abused in a foster home.

The tribal leaders and others will hold a press conference on Tuesday and a demonstration on Wednesday outside near the offices of the U.S. Department of Interior, which is hosting a conference with tribal leaders from around the nation, said Randy Pozos, communications coordinator for the Lakota People's Law Project, which has been working with the tribes on the foster care issue.

"We are losing too many children to non-Native foster care. It threatens the future of our families, culture and tribe," Oglala Sioux Chairman Bryan Brewer said in a written statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes sued the state in federal court earlier this year. The lawsuit alleges that when Indian children are removed from a home based on accusations of neglect or abuse, parents are not given a proper hearing.

The issue gained attention after a National Public Radio series two years ago said a disproportionate number of Native American children removed from their homes in South Dakota are sent to foster care in non-Indian homes or group homes. The news agency's ombudsman earlier this year said the NPR report was deeply flawed because it had no proof for its main allegations, included factual errors and misleading use of data, and had incomplete reporting. But the ombudsman said he could not determine whether the state should be doing more to keep American Indian families together.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently said he supports the tribes' efforts to run their own child welfare and foster care services with federal money.

"The state is confident the Indian Child Welfare Act is being followed in these cases. The governor also has expressed his support for the idea of the tribes taking on this responsibility, if that's what they want to do," Daugaard's communications director, Tony Venhuizen, said Monday.

Pozos said nationally only two or three tribes a year have been getting planning grants to set up their own child welfare systems, and all nine tribes in South Dakota want to start planning to do so.