Three years after Native American families filed a lawsuit against state officials over the handling of cases involving their children, the end of a phase was imminent Wednesday as lawyers from both sides made final arguments in Rapid City federal court.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the Seventh Circuit Court, state Department of Social Services and Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office have made no fundamental changes in Native American children’s temporary custody hearings despite a federal judge’s findings in March of 2015.
Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken, of the South Dakota District Court, at the time found that local court procedures violated Native people’s rights. This included not advising parents they had a right to contest the state’s petition for temporary custody and not requiring the state to present sworn testimony from a live witness.
Viken had asked the defendants to offer recommendations on how the emergency removal hearings, or "48-hour hearings," can be fixed. The judge wanted to use this as a guide for an order he will be issuing, but on Wednesday said he has not received any recommendations.
Defense lawyers for the Seventh Circuit Court and State’s Attorney’s Office told Viken their clients have already instituted changes since his 2015 findings. The DSS’s attorney, meanwhile, said the department has always respected Native rights in the removal process.
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Among the issues Viken is expected to address in his forthcoming order is whether the federal court will appoint a monitor to watch over the custody hearings, as requested by the plaintiffs. Viken did not say when his order will be released.
An issue that will be taken up in future hearings is the plaintiffs’ claim that the DSS has failed to train its workers on the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act.