RAPID CITY (AP) -- Between choked sobs and streaming tears, more than a dozen Native American families delivered testimony Wednesday in Rapid City about how their children were taken from them by South Dakota social workers.
Those stories from parents -- specifically details about the difficulty in regaining custody of Native children placed in non-Native foster homes -- filled the first day of the Great Plains Indian Child Welfare Act Summit in Rapid City.
More than 250 people from reservations and organizations across the Midwest were at the Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center for the conference. Wednesday focused on testimony from families about alleged violations by South Dakota under the Indian Child Welfare Act. Thursday and Friday are to focus on potential solutions.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 to protect Native culture and tribal identity from the unnecessary removal of Native children by state and federal agencies. South Dakota tribal officials allege that South Dakota has violated the law since its inception, but those complaints have gained new impetus after an expose by National Public Radio in 2011. The Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes, along with three Native American parents, filed a lawsuit against the state two months ago.
Richard LeCompte, 54, a heavy-machinery operator in Rapid City, was among those who shared their stories on Wednesday.
LeCompte said he had spent a year battling the state to regain custody of his 8-year old son, who was placed in foster care after he was molested by a family member.
LeCompte said he saw no end to his struggle. He had appeared in court 15 times and said, like many others giving testimony, that South Dakota set an impossibly high standard for him to meet.
"The Virgin Mary could not have met that criteria," he told the crowd.
At times, Wednesday's testimony evoked frustration and anger among tribal officials. Cyril Scott, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, speaking during a recess, said each child placed in non-Native care was a blow to the integrity of tribal culture.
"We are all about educating our own children, about passing down family values, and the state of South Dakota should be ashamed of themselves the way they trampled on ICWA law in Indian Country," he said.
Elizabeth Little Elk, executive director of Sicangu Child and Family Service on the Rosebud Reservation, blamed institutional racism in South Dakota for the decades it had taken to bring ICWA concerns into mainstream discussion.
"I think there's this collective belief that Native people can't take care of their own children that was established somehow, somewhere," she said during a conference recess.
Little Elk said one potential solution to avoid future violations would be for the federal government to direct funds for administering ICWA to tribes, instead of the state of South Dakota.
"If the tribes are going to implement ICWA, then they need the resources to be able to do that, and they don't have these," she said.
Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, was among several high-profile guests listening to Wednesday's testimony.
Washburn said he hoped to find ways his department could improve the relationship between the state and the tribes.
"There's certainly been a feeling that the state is not sensitive to the needs of Indian communities," he said. "It's just a real high-stakes issue because it's about children. There are a lot of tears and a lot of disappointment. At the same time, there's a lot of hope, too."