Reps. ask feds about SD Indian foster care summit
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Two Democratic congressmen sent a letter Friday to the head of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Indian Affairs questioning why the government has not yet held a summit about Native American children in foster care in South Dakota.
Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico wrote to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn asking about the agency’s failure to hold a summit examining South Dakota’s foster care system and the Indian Child Welfare Act. The 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.
Federal officials had told members of Congress they would hold a summit with state, federal and tribal officials following a story by National Public Radio that said South Dakota routinely breaks the federal law by taking too many Native American children out of their homes.
‘‘Fourteen months have passed since our initial inquiry and it appears that a summit, or stakeholder meeting of any kind, has yet to materialize,’’ wrote Markey, a ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal Indian affairs, and Lujan, a ranking member of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.
Phone messages to South Dakota’s two senators and congresswoman were not returned late Friday.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs held an informal meeting on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in March, but several state officials — including representatives from the Department of Social Services, which handles foster and adoption services — didn’t attend.
‘‘It certainly wasn’t the summit the BIA promised,’’ said Daniel Paul Nelson, secretary-treasurer of the Lakota People’s Law Project, a nonprofit law firm working to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act in South Dakota.
Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, said in a statement that the BIA supports the ongoing tribal efforts to resolve the matter and the agency is ready to participate in future forums.
The NPR report said that 90 percent of the Native American children removed from their homes in South Dakota each year are sent to foster care in non-Native American homes or group homes, and that Native American children are placed in South Dakota’s foster care system at a disproportionate rate than other children.
The report also suggested that the state’s motive for removing Native American children from their home might be for financial reasons, because the state receives money for each child removed from his or her home.
The NPR piece was found credible in a report recently approved by six of the nine Indian Child Welfare Act directors representing each of the nine tribes in South Dakota.
The directors’ report found circumstantial evidence that state officials may take high numbers of Native American foster children into custody to stimulate South Dakota’s economy, because the state gets millions of dollars a year to subsidize foster care programs. The state also receives additional money for every special needs child who is adopted. The directors plan to send the report to Congress soon.
State officials have acknowledged that a disproportionate number of Native American children are involved in the child welfare system. But they said that is because they receive more referrals for alleged abuse involving Native American children, and that leads to more investigations and removals from homes for those children.
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