PIERRE -- Federal officials are planning a summit in South Dakota in the wake of allegations that the state has violated federal law by removing too many American Indian children from their homes and placing them in foster care with non-Indian families.
Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department's Office of Indian Affairs, said that the agency has created a committee to plan the summit, the date of which has not yet been set.
"We hope it will open up a dialogue between tribes and federal and state agencies," Darling said.
The summit is in response to a National Public Radio series in October that said the state routinely broke the Indian Child Welfare Act and disrupted the lives of hundreds of Native American families each year. Federal law requires that Native American children removed from homes be placed with relatives or put in foster care with other Native American families except in unusual circumstances.
The three-part NPR report said 90 percent of the Native American children removed from their homes in South Dakota each year are sent to foster care in non-Indian homes or group homes. It reported that Native American children are placed in South Dakota's foster care system at a disproportionate rate because only 15 percent of the state's child population is Native American, but half of the children in foster care are Native American.
State officials have criticized the NPR report as inaccurate, unfair and biased.
Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of the state Department of Social Services, said the Interior Department has not notified state officials about the planned summit, but that the state has nothing to hide.
"We are very confident that South Dakota is in compliance with federal law in this area, and we really do welcome the opportunity for the federal government and others to understand just how that federal law is being implemented in our state," Malsam-Rysdon said.
The summit suggestion surfaced in a letter to members of Congress who had called for an investigation. The meeting is meant to give state, federal and tribal officials a way to work together so that all involved agencies comply with the law and make sure American Indian children and their families are protected, wrote Larry Echo Hawk, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
The Interior Department also is considering sending lawyers to South Dakota to help tribes enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act, Echo Hawk wrote.
Malsam-Rysdon, whose agency oversees South Dakota's child welfare system, said people need to understand that the system involves her department, tribes, courts, law-enforcement officers and others. Federal officials should not take any action based on the NPR report, but instead should get the facts about what is happening in South Dakota, she said.
"We're glad the Department of Interior is taking it seriously, that they're evidently interested into looking into and ensuring the federal law is being implemented," she said.
Malsam-Rysdon said it's true that a disproportionate number of Native American children are involved in the child welfare system. The state receives more referrals for alleged abuse and neglect involving Native American children, and that leads to more investigations and removals from homes for those children, she said.
"What really permeates our involvement with the child welfare system is safety of the child," Malsam-Rysdon said. "We're involved in homes where there are proven or foreseeable safety concerns regarding a child."
In a written response to the NPR series, the state has said it uses all available Native American foster placement homes.
The series said the state's motive for removing Native American children from their homes might be financial because the state gets federal financial assistance for each child removed from his or her home. The report said the state gets almost $100 million a year to subsidize foster care programs, but state officials said the budget for the entire Division of Child Protection Services last year was only $59 million, and spending specifically on foster care and foster-care support was just $8 million.
The series also said there was a conflict of interest in Gov. Dennis Daugaard's work for Children's Home Society of South Dakota when he was lieutenant governor. That organization received millions of dollars for housing Native American children under contracts the state awarded without competitive bids.
The governor's office responded that Children's Home Society has had contracts with the state since 1978, long before Daugaard became its chief operating officer in 2002.
State officials also have said the Department of Social Services cannot remove children from homes and place them in protective custody. Only law officers and judges have the legal authority to do so, the state officials said.