ROOKS: Questions unasked, unanswered

2013-05-17T06:30:00Z ROOKS: Questions unasked, unansweredDavid Rooks Journal columnist Rapid City Journal
May 17, 2013 6:30 am  • 

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?

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 Write to him at The opinions expressed by this freelance columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rapid City Journal.

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. michael
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    michael - May 23, 2013 6:34 pm
    As parents of 10 children, three of which were foster and then adopted children, I understand the grief of losing a child. I think I also understand the workload DSS is under all because of broken promises by caregivers/parents. As is stated by Mr. Rooks as well as LPLP and Jim Kent, the problem isn't DSS and we shouldn't need a law like ICWA. The problem lies with all of us of all races who do not make children a priority.

    If we all kept our promise as parents of our children then there wouldn't be these issues. I think I'm qualified as a white parent raising ten children 3 of which I love as my own.

    In one situation of two children, the Lakota family is so destructive towards their own that I can't even comprehend it. The damage they have done to their children is paramount. Yet, we love them and suffer at their injuries as they do. In an attempt to reconnect the family ties I opened our adopted children to the worst transgressions of again being rejected.

    In the other situation the birth mother has all the love of a mother for her doubt about it. But because of fetal alcohol syndrome and being an alcoholic herself doesn't have the skills to care for her child. Both she and my wife and I lover our child. And her birth mother is grateful that we are providing for her what she could not provide for. This is a welcomed relationship.

    We offered to become foster and them adoptive parents because God has blessed us with the love of family. It's not easy to love someone else’s children but it’s amazing to realize that all of a sudden you know you would die for them.

    And trust me, discrimination goes both ways with government agencies because of ICWA. But I also know DSS is undermanned and outgunned with the need of foster home, black, white, red yellow.

    But all of this happens because our society doesn't keep its sacred promises. The one consistent fault for these native children that I have been associated with is the failure of the Fathers to be Dads. There are no dads in the picture. For Lakota families, for all families we are paying the price for the breakdown of the family unit.

    And then there is the culture debate.

    I took one of my sons down to a Lakota wake service a few years ago. I took him to Wounded Knee. I took him to White Clay. I took him to the convenience store in Pine Ridge and saw the pictures of the participants of the battle on the wall. I asked the girl at the counter who the Indian was in the suit and tie above the door. She wasn't sure but went to ask someone in back who it was. She came back with "We think its Jim Thorpe."

    It's Dr. Charles Eastman. I knew that as did my Lakota Son who was raised in a white home. The kids right there on the Pine Ridge, miles away from one of the great tragedies of American/Lakota history didn't even know who those people were on the wall.

    The real tragedy that is worse that Wounded Knee is the loss of the real history that is failing to be taught to those who are closest to it.

    Please, cut the State some slack. It doesn't matter if its state or tribal government, they can't do what good strong families can do. Good strong families that love children of any color.

    Families and moms and dads are where the solution lies. I pray to St. Joseph.

    As Archbishop Oscar Romero said, "We can't do everything. But we can do something. We can plant seeds of something we will never see."
  2. Obtuseangler
    Report Abuse
    Obtuseangler - May 18, 2013 8:38 am
    Good column, and great response by the Lakota People's Law Project. One thought on the response, though. It sounds like relatives are sometimes screened out as caregivers. This is probably due to a provision in the law. When we look to the government to handle our problems, government solutions provide more problems to be overcome. Perhaps the answers lie outside of government. I think we are better off handling things ourselves, rather than involving the state. There are some things only government can do well, but that list is short. I respect the Lakota, and think they might be better off handling their own issues.
  3. LPLP
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    LPLP - May 17, 2013 5:06 pm
    Mr. Rook, we are grateful that you attended the ICWA Summit and reported on it. We also want to respond to a few of the points you’ve made.

    Near the end of the article you state: “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?”

    Earlier this year the Coalition of Sioux Tribes for Children and Families submitted a comprehensive report to Congress on the state of Native foster care in South Dakota. In their report, they asked that very question. In a great many cases, Indian children are removed from their homes under circumstances in which they would not have been removed from non-Native homes. Examples abound of Indian children being taken from their families based on nothing more than a “rumor” about some problem or another with the child’s parent. Recently, several child advocates who handled abuse and neglect cases for the state—a former state’s attorney among them—have testified that they felt pressured to seize Indian children in cases where, all things being equal, they would have never have taken a white child. Additionally, of the three types of state-recognized “maltreatment” of children (emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect), South Dakota's rate of identifying neglect is much higher than the national average—95.8% of cases in 2010. We believe the reason for this is that the state often simply equates poverty with neglect. And, rather than work with families to take advantage of available resources to improve, for example, access to nutrition assistance or health care, the state makes a finding of neglect and takes the child away.

    More importantly, however, the purpose of the summit was to look at the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which is a law that comes into play *after* an Indian child has been removed from his or her home. And it is here where it is clear that the state is egregiously violating the law.

    ICWA says that after an Indian child is removed from the home, state departments of social services must make “active efforts” to place that child with family members, relatives, or another Indian family of the same or proximate tribe. But we have found hundreds of cases where grandmothers, aunts, sisters and brothers were refused the right to care for their relative Indian child. In may of these cases, the child’s relatives are forced to undergo the same tests that are required for licensed foster care providers. If they do not meet the requirements—such as having a stable income above a particular threshold and a separate bedroom for each child—then they are refused the right to care for the child. Why should a grandmother have to “pass the test” to be a licensed foster care provider simply to care for her own grandson or granddaughter? This is especially puzzling given that the ICWA mandates grandparents be given special preference in child placement.

    We have also seen cases where grandparents *did* jump through all of the state’s hoops yet the children were still sent away. And cases where relatives were never contacted by the state at all or where the state simply ignored their pleas to be able to care for their grandchild, nephew, niece, sister, or brother. We strongly recommend that you read the Coalition’s report to Congress, which can be downloaded here:

    One final point. As of July 2011, there were 440 American Indian children in family run foster homes in South Dakota. There were 65 licensed Indian foster homes, with only 59 children placed in 24 of these homes. That means that 39 Indian foster homes sat empty (62%) while at the same time 381 Indian children (87%) resided in non-Native foster homes. There is indeed a shortage of licensed Indian foster homes in the state, but why is even a single one of them sitting empty? If the state had any respect for Indian tribes and federal child welfare law those homes would be full.

    In closing, we do want to say that we have only respect for the many caring, foster parents out there, be they Native or non-Native.

    Lakota People's Law Project
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