South Dakota Foster Program Raises Concerns

The government of South Dakota controversially places Native American children into non-Native American foster homes.

On June 4, 2013, a draft complaint was delivered to United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights officials Giorgia Passarelli and Rekia Soumana in New York City regarding the removal of thousands of Native American children from their families and tribes in South Dakota.

Native American leaders believe that placing Native American children into white foster homes destroys their culture [Jason Coppola/Al Jazeera]

Native American leaders believe that placing Native American children into white foster homes destroys their culture [Jason Coppola/Al Jazeera]

On June 4, 2013, a draft complaint was delivered to United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights officials Giorgia Passarelli and Rekia Soumana in New York City regarding the removal of thousands of Native American children from their families and tribes in South Dakota.

It has been carried out in a manner which, says the Great Sioux Nation, could be defined as genocide. This charge is based on section 2 (e) of the UN genocide convention of 1948 and the Federal Genocide Implementation Act of 1987. It states:

“(a) Basic Offense – Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such –

(1) kills members of that group;

(2) causes serious bodily injury to members of that group;

(3) causes the permanent impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar techniques;

(4) subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part;

(5) imposes measures intended to prevent births within the group; or

(6) transfers by force children of the group to another group;

shall be punished…”

The draft complaint was hand-delivered by Daniel P. Sheehan, Chief Counsel to the Lakota People’s Law Project, in response to the more than 700 Native American children removed from their homes and placed in foster care each year in South Dakota. Of those children, about 87 percent are placed with non-native families or group homes, far from their Indian communities, culture, and ceremonies.

This, the Sioux charge, is in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) passed by Congress in 1978 which was intended to protect Indian nations, families, and culture by allowing children to remain with their extended families, a central theme in their Indigenous belief system, even if in foster care.

A light on the past

The taking of Indian children has a long and disgraceful history in the Americas.
According to a report prepared for congress by Indian Child Welfare Act directors from South Dakota’s nine American Indian tribes, with assistance from the Lakota People’s Law Project, “For the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota (Sioux) people of South Dakota, the absorption into state care began with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty”.

The Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux Nation “the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of their ancestral lands spanning five US States including South Dakota. The treaties have been broken by the US Government ever since the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

“Article VII”, of the treaty, “stated that ‘in order to insure the civilisation of the Indians entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted…and they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend.”

Indian children were put into boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language, forced to dress like Europeans, and given Christian names.

The assimilation of Native children into white Christian culture was a powerful weapon in the colonists’ quest of Manifest Destiny, westward expansion, and profit.

Phyllis Young, a Hunkpapa Lakota and Ihanktonwan Dakota human rights advocate from Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota explains, “I believe that historically the non-Indian society has always had to control our people, but they have never enslaved us. They have never succeeded. When they came here to settle the lands they developed educational systems, they did it to control our children. They understood our kinship rules. They did it to disrupt our whole way of life”, she says.

“Children, in our language is, ‘wakanyeja’, it means ‘sacred being'”, Young explained to Al Jazeera. “It’s derived from the word ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ in our language. So we had an attachment to our children that they knew they had to break.”

For the Sioux, this spiritual war has evolved.

William Janklow served as an assistant prosecutor for the South Dakota state Attorney General’s office before becoming Attorney General of the state in 1975.

When the American Indian Movement (AIM) began the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 to protest the breaking of their treaty rights, leading to a 71-day military siege by the US Government, it was Janklow, according to Sheehan, “who called the federal troops in from the Nixon administration to surround the Oglala People in Pine Ridge and began the siege that developed into several people being shot and killed by FBI snipers”.

Janklow, who once declared, “the only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leaders’ heads and pull the trigger”, was determined to destroy their movement and the rising hope it had given its people.

William Janklow became governor of South Dakota in 1979. He served four terms. It was during this time, explains Sheehan, that he “initiated this major epidemic of seizing Lakota children and having them removed from their families that were very similar to the old boarding school days.”

Since the reign of Janklow, Sheehan told Al Jazeera, “over 5,000 Indian children have been removed from their families”.

Exploitation for profit

The ICWA directors’ report is based on their own investigation following the 2011 NPR report, “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families”, which documented violations against the ICWA by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services.

“The federal government gives $100m to South Dakota each year to fund foster care and related services, like adoption”, the report says.

South Dakota is one of the top-ranked states for dependence on federal support.

According to Sheehan, “The state of South Dakota would get up to $79,000 per Indian child per year, as long as that child remained inside the foster care programme on an adoptive track. When they placed the child in a white foster care home they would only give that white foster care family $9,000 to $12,000 a year.”

And the rest of the money, says Sheehan, “the state of South Dakota kept.”

Also of concern, says the ICWA directors’ report, is that, “The state of South Dakota has dramatically increased funding from 1999 to 2009 to support its Department of Social Services (DSS), particularly its Medical Services Division”.

During that time, the amount of money the state spent on pharmaceuticals for foster care children saw a sharp increase.

“The drugs costs are so extravagant, that a significant portion of federal funds coming into the state must be being used to pay for it”, says Sheehan.

“Between 2005 and 2006”, according to the report, “the number of prescriptions provided to Native American foster children in South Dakota via Medicaid funding more than doubled from 547 to 1,138, while the amount of federal Medicaid spending for those prescriptions spiked from $489,631 to $1,002,682. This is a remarkable rise in pharmaceutical prescriptions for which we at this time, have no explanation. In every other state for those years, prescriptions for foster care merely inched up, stayed the same, or reduced.”

Some Indian children, according to Sheehan, are administered major psychotropic drugs like Zoloft and Zyprexa.

“We found out that when the state of South Dakota seizes a Lakota child they were forced to take a mental health screening test. The screening test was drafted up by the Eli Lily Corporation which is a major manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. When they flunked the test, they were determined to be in need of one or more of these drugs”.

South Dakota ICWA directors “are alarmed by the possibility, that Native American foster children in South Dakota are receiving harmfully excessive amounts of prescription drugs designed to treat mental illness.”

If these drugs should cause significant negative side effects including attempts at suicide, Sheehan explains, South Dakota is then “placing them in psychiatric facilities”.

“They built three juvenile psychiatric facilities in South Dakota and began to fill them up with Lakota kids”, he told Al Jazeera.

So while some of these federal dollars are used to purchase pharmaceutical drugs, Sheehan says, other funds are “used to hire more people – all white people – to staff these psychiatric institutes and group homes that they have for the children”.

“This is a cottage industry in South Dakota. Only 53 percent of the state’s annual budget is not reimbursed by the federal government. A significant portion of all those federal dollars goes to the state’s Department of Social Services, which is growing, and is made up of 56 percent Lakota children”, Sheehan explains.

William Janklow went on to become South Dakota’s sole congressman before passing away in 2012. Janklow’s successor, Dennis Daugaard, under intense pressure from the Great Sioux Nation, recently expressed support for tribally-run foster care and adoption programs in a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“Just because he made the statement doesn’t mean that it will happen. I don’t know if the state is willing to give that up”, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan V. Brewer, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m hoping that what he said will influence the state of South Dakota, their congressional people, and allow this to happen. It was a good step on behalf of the governor. I think he would want to do what is right. I think he finally understands the seriousness of how our peoples’ rights have been violated”, he says.

The Sioux remain cautious. Before becoming Governor of South Dakota, Daugaard served as executive director of one of the state’s largest privately run foster care providers called Children’s Home Society. According to an NPR investigation, “Daugard was on the group’s payroll while he was lieutenant governor – and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts”.

“The governor of South Dakota has no choice,” says Young. Our children are not for sale. South Dakota doesn’t have oil and gas. It doesn’t have the resources. They’ve exploited everything like the gold in the Black Hills. The exploitation for profit has to stop”.

Two different worlds

The reasons, such as “neglect”, that the state gives for removing Native children, the ICWA directors’ report says are racially biased and carried out under “questionable circumstances”.

“The ICWA directors suspect that an inappropriate concept of ‘neglect’ may be being used by DSS to seize high numbers of Native American children from their homes”, they say. “South Dakota’s definition of ‘abused and neglected’ encompasses those ‘whose environment is injurious to the child’s welfare’. This definition may be being interpreted by DSS in a way that blurs the line between neglect and impoverishment.”

Young explains, “Neglect defines a standard that’s two standards, their standard and our standard. So their neglect standard is based on our poverty. That’s their construct. Historically we have always survived on less than the nuclear family.”

“We still have that genetic psyche-we still have that genetic memory of who we are”, says Young. “We still have the extended family and the grandmother is a very eminent person in our society. She has a premier right to her grandchildren”.

The western concept of adoption is foreign to the Sioux. Even in the event of losing a mother or father, as long as there are relatives, a child has a family.

The differences are reflected through the language.

“In our value systems we have something called ‘hunka”, says Young, explaining their word for ceremonial adoption of a child into their extended family. “We embrace people, we bring them in, when you have termination of parental rights in the American system, and you have adoption, it’s taking them away, putting them out there, it’s really foreign to our people, really foreign to our culture and to our value system. It’s a totally different meaning we have”.

Young explained to Al Jazeera, “There’s always been a stereotype about poverty. Poverty means a different standard in a non-Indian society. So if we don’t have the nuclear family, the ideal home setting, and the one bedroom for each child, if we don’t have that standard of the non-Indian society, then we are in poverty and our Lakota families are not able to take care of their children”.

“We have smaller homes, we have less income”, Young continues, “but we have raised our children and grandchildren at poverty levels but still adequate. We’ve lived with lower standards of living but we have successfully raised Lakota children.

Young, a grandmother, speaks from experience. “I can say that I’ve successfully raised eight children and I’ve raised two additional children from extended family. We didn’t starve. They were not neglected. But I couldn’t get a status for a foster home because I didn’t have a fire extinguisher. The only thing I didn’t have. So I wasn’t given the foster home status.”

“We live in two different worlds”, she says, “and imposing their standard on us and defining neglect as poverty is something we are up against”.

Coming together

Sheehan, who has notified the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice about the complaint as well, is optimistic.

This “epidemic” has now brought together the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation.

“This is a major event that is taking place”, explains Sheehan. “This is one of the biggest things to happen since the Occupation of Wounded Knee back in 1973.”

“This is only the second time since 1934 that they have come together to take collective action to demand that the United States Government withdraw its funding to the state of South Dakota for Indian family services and to transfer money directly to the tribe to set up their own Lakota run family services”, Sheehan told Al Jazeera. The first being a fight to recover their sacred Black Hills.

“If we could just get the federal government to honor our treaties”, says Brewer, “That’s the problem that we are having here”.

This article first appeared on on August 8, 2013. © Al Jazeera Media Network. Reprinted by permission.

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