NPR has a report up about the prevalence of Native children in South Dakota being placed in foster care, mostly outside their tribes. This is in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which mandates exactly the opposite for all states.
State officials say they have to do what’s in the best interest of the child, but the state does have a financial incentive to remove the children. The state receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every child it takes from a family, and in some cases the state gets even more money if the child is Native American. The result is that South Dakota is now removing children at a rate higher than the vast majority of other states in the country.
Native American families feel the brunt of this. Their children make up less than 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half of the children in foster care.
Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids. Among them is Children’s Home Society, the state’s largest foster care provider, which has close ties with top government officials. It used to be run by South Dakota’s Gov. Dennis Daugard. An NPR investigation has found that Daugard was on the group’s payroll while he was lieutenant governor — and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. It’s an unusual relationship highlighting the powerful role money and politics play in South Dakota’s foster care system.
If that sounds like a perfect storm for driving a wrecking ball through Native families, that’s because it is.
It gets worse.
The story profiles Janice Howe, whose four grandchildren were taken away from their mother, supposedly because she was abusing prescription drugs, though the state never charged her with a crime.
Howe, other relatives and other members of the tribe all wanted the children. And federal law says they should have gotten them. The Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that, except in the rarest circumstances, Indian children must be placed with relatives, a tribal member or at the very least, another Native American. It also says the state must make every effort to first keep a family together with services and programs.
According to state records, almost 90 percent of the kids in family foster care are in non-native homes or group care.
And where did they take Janice Howe’s grandchildren?
Howe’s twin grandbabies were taken to a white foster home about 100 miles away.
There are two separate facts here, and the combination is significant. The twins were not placed with a white foster family because they happened to be the closest; they were placed far away from their mother and the rest of the family. They were not taken far away because there were no closer options available; their grandmother, who was already a part of their lives, wanted to care for them.
Two months later, another social worker picked up the twins’ two older sisters from school and took them into foster care without calling the family.
Now, this is just one family. With Native kids being more than half the state’s foster care cases, could it be that the state simply doesn’t have enough Native foster parents on the rolls to care for all the children?
That comes as a surprise to Marcella Dion. She’s a native foster home provider on the Crow Creek reservation and has lots of room.
Her home’s been empty for six years.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on,'” she says. “I got my [Indian Child Welfare license]. No kids.”
Then there’s Suzanne Crow, also from Crow Creek.
“I’ve been a foster parent here for over a year,” she said. “They’ve never called me for any Indian kids.”
In that year, hundreds of native children in South Dakota were placed in white foster homes. Officials on the Pine Ridge reservation, several hours away, also say they have 20 empty homes.
In no degree is anyone arguing that Social Services should turn a blind eye to child abuse for the sake of keeping children in their tribes. That’s not what’s going on:
There are children in South Dakota who need to be removed from their families. But according to state figures, less than 12 percent of the children in foster care in South Dakota have been actually physically or sexually abused in their homes. That’s less than the national average.
And yet South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states, according to data from the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
There’s one word that makes it possible for the state to remove Janice Howe’s grandchildren and more than 700 other native kids every year: Neglect. The state says parents have neglected their children.
The problem, says Bob Walters, a council representative from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is that neglect is subjective.
Walters, along with officials from seven other South Dakota tribes NPR interviewed, say what social workers call neglect, is often poverty — and sometimes native tradition.
“The standards are set too high for our people,” Walters says. “We’re family people. If there is 30 people in my home, that’s fine. [When] I was raised, there was my mom, my dad and 12 kids. And I’m very thankful I grew up that way.”
He says social workers are often young and there’s constant turnover. He says many seem to have never set foot on a reservation before.
Walters says the workers don’t understand that most tribal members don’t have money to buy gas for a parenting class two hours away or that food is often shared among families.
The report never really clarifies how Native tradition might be indistinguishable from neglect, but there are definitely a lot of families being punished for living in poverty. The state isn’t offering those families any public assistance to improve the children’s quality of life, either. It has no incentive to throw money at keeping struggling families together, when it has every incentive to see how many Native kids it can get adopted out of their families of birth.
Every time a state puts a child in foster care, the federal government sends money. Because South Dakota is poor, it receives even more money than other states – almost a hundred million dollars a year.
Then there’s the bonus money. Take for example something the federal government calls the “adoption incentive bonus.” States receive money if they move kids out of foster care and into adoption — about $4,000 a child. But according to federal records, if the child has “special needs,” a state can get as much as $12,000.
A decade ago, South Dakota designated all Native American children “special needs,” which means Native American children who are permanently removed from their homes are worth more financially to the state than other children.
I think the reasoning for designating all Native kids as “special needs” is that it costs more money to make sure they’re fostered and adopted in compliance with ICWA, which requires a lot of oversight. It doesn’t really add up, though, if the state is acting like ICWA doesn’t exist. Then it looks more like the state wants to milk the Feds by disrupting as many childhoods as possible, and it figures Native families are easy targets.
Howe’s daughter eventually got her kids back, but the state could take them back at any time. The twins seem to have fared well, but the older girls now hoard food and are afraid of white people.
The arrangement looks eerily similar to the boarding schools used to assimilate Native American youth from all over the country, but it isn’t only racism that’s leading South Dakota to piss all over the family cohesion of its Native tribes. It just wouldn’t be America if there weren’t a ridiculous conflict of interest involved somewhere.
The money the group was getting from the state doubled under his leadership. Children’s Home grew financially to seven times its size. It added two new facilities.
State records show it seized on a big opportunity. The state began outsourcing much of its work, such as training foster care parents and examining potential foster homes. Children’s Home got almost every one of those contracts.
The group paid Daugaard $115,000 a year. But that wasn’t his only job. He was also the state’s lieutenant governor — and a rising star in state politics.
The seven years Daugaard spent at Children’s Home — and his ability to turn the place around — were prominent features of his successful 2010 bid for governor.
Can someone please stop the planet? I want off.