Hundreds of Native American children are taken from their families every year in South Dakota through state and tribal court actions meant to protect youngsters from abuse and neglect.
Most of those kids end up living — sometimes for months or even years — with non-Native families offering foster care.
That controversial reality, state social workers say, is usually their only option for protecting children. Many Native American parents and tribal officials worry, however, that it is a systematic denial of Native family rights that threatens tribal culture.
Those issues will be debated in Rapid City from Wednesday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Great Plains Indian Child Welfare Act Summit at the Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center. The event is free and open to the public.
A key issue at the summit will be South Dakota's compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which aims to have Native American children who have been removed from their homes by the courts placed with family or tribal caregivers.
Terry Yellow Fat, an ICWA compliance officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe based in Fort Yates, N.D., said the placement numbers and personal stories from the reservations show that South Dakota needs to improve its compliance.
"We did summits on Standing Rock, one in North Dakota and one in South Dakota, and we've heard some horror stories," Yellow Fat said. "We have many people who want to testify in Rapid City at the summit."
Because the Standing Rock covers parts of both states, Yellow Fat said he has been able to compare North Dakota and South Dakota for ICWA compliance. He believes North Dakota is more committed to the law and working with tribes on proper placement of Native children.
"They've taken a more proactive approach, that if there's something wrong they want to know it," he said. "I see a major difference."
Yellow Fat said he hopes the summit and attendance by staffers for congressional delegations in South Dakota and elsewhere result in a congressional hearing on the state's ICWA compliance.
Randy Pozos of Santa Cruz, Calif., a spokesman for the Lakota People's Law Project in Rapid City, said the summit also will push for more federal funding to help Native tribes develop and expand social programs and help tribal courts to handle placement of tribal children. Sometimes tribes have to give that responsibility over to the state because of budget shortfalls, he said.
"I think it's a situation where the tribes would like to have more resources and capabilities to provide their own family services programs," Pozos said. "But right now the tribal courts are pretty much forced by necessity to turn kids over to the state."
Pozos said there have been legitimate horror stories where Native children suffered abuse in state foster care. There also have been stories about the placement of Native children in foster care that worked out very well, he said.
But even in those cases, tribes are being diminished by the loss of children to a non-Native culture, Pozos said.
"Tribes are beginning to evaporate, because these children are being raised in another culture," he said.
State Social Services Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said children are never removed from the home without the involvement of law enforcement and a court order. The state notifies tribes when children are removed and those tribes have the option of taking the case into tribal court, she said.
ICWA directs placement of Native children with family or Native foster-care providers when possible but allows non-Native placement when it isn't feasible, Malsam-Rysdon said.
"We follow ICWA law well, I think, as a state agency," she said. "And we always look first at relative options, kinship options. We have staff whose job it is to locate relatives."
Foster care by Native providers also can be difficult to find, Malsam-Rysdon said.
"The difficulty is there just aren't very many Native American foster homes," she said. "We've worked closely with a number of tribes trying to improve that, but it just hasn't come to fruition."
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org