In an otherwise silent conference room, where through heaving grief a Lakota mother claims state officials placed her child on drugs that led to his suicide, out of empathy and respect the majority Lakota audience tilt their heads forward slightly and lower their eyelids.

A heavy pause, and an angry silence: Nearly everyone knows someone, a friend’s child, a relative’s -- theirs -- who has been placed in foster care by the state’s social services apparatus. Time was nearly all Native foster children went to non-Native homes. Congress’ 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), with its stated intent to “protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families,” was meant to change that.

Hailed at the time as landmark progress in White/Indian relations, as the years passed cold, hard reality tarnished its promise. Even though most of the social workers in agencies operating on Indian reservations are Native Americans, facts are stubborn things. One particularly pernicious fact is placement in Native foster homes is made exceedingly problematic by an enormous shortage of qualified and willing Native American foster homes available.

The bitter irony for these social workers is “the harvest is great, the workers are few.” Consequently, and inevitably, more and more Native children placed into foster care wind up in non-Native foster homes. It’s a hard truth. A reality social workers, White or Native, cannot simply wish away.

Another hard truth: I have yet to read a story about the problem of foster care for Native children that has contained even one quote by some tribal leader or official that thanked these families, non-Native or Native, who open their homes, and their hearts, to these bereft children. Conversely, I am equally unaware of any of these stories failing to quote these leaders on how awful it is when a Native child winds up in a non-Native home.

Really? Would they be better off on the street?

Now, 35 years after ICWA was signed into law, grieving family members queue up at the Rapid City Ramkota on Wednesday to say there are still serious problems. There can be little doubt state and federal social service agencies make their share of mistakes. Perhaps most, if not all, of the families who showed up at the Ramkota had legitimate anger and sorrow.

Still, however sagacious, no legislation can overcome a refractory reality. Have there been problems with the implementation of ICWA? You bet. But while we’re gathered, let’s ask some additional questions. Questions, perhaps, no one wants to ask, like: Why are so many Native children winding up in foster care?

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Now there’s a tough one. What makes it particularly hard to chew is you can’t have a conference in a hotel and host a number of “stakeholders” who will gas on about this legislation and that initiative, and how Congresswoman What’s it said this and Senator So and So said that …

No. That won’t answer it. If we’re to be honest, we’ll look at each other and ask: What is going on with our families? What really is the problem? How do we restore our own cultural imperatives? How do we -- not someone else -- mend our own Sacred Hoop?

Yes, children are sacred. Why is it so many of ours need to flee our people to be safe?

David Rooks’ website is www.astillmoonandstars.com. Write to him at davidrooks@gwtc.net. The opinions expressed by this freelance columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rapid City Journal.

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