The South Dakota Capitol building in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
PIERRE – The House of Representatives shot down a bill that would have created a task force to study the causes and possible solutions for the disparate representation of Native American children in the foster care system.
Two other bills would have made changes to child removal procedures in the interest of addressing disparate impacts, but each failed in committee.
Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Pine Ridge, pleaded with her fellow lawmakers to pass the task force during impassioned testimony on Wednesday. The enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe reminded the body that nearly two decades had passed since the last comprehensive study of Native children in foster care. She relayed the oft-repeated statistic that more than 60% of children in foster care in the state are Native, while around 10% of the population is Native.
She noted that those figures have scarcely changed since the 2004 study took place.
Then, as now, neglect is the most common justification for the removal of children from their homes.
“Being born and raised in one of the poorest counties in the country, I can tell you that neglect often looks like poverty,” said Pourier, who was the lead sponsor of the two foster care bills that failed earlier in the session. The lead sponsor of SB 191 is Sen. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge, another Oglala Sioux tribal member.
All nine of South Dakota’s tribal nations signed on to support SB 191. The tribes would have had a seat at the table for the work of the two-year task force, with lawmakers and representatives from the state Department of Social Services.
Each tribe has cooperative agreements with the state on taxation, foster care and other governmental functions, which vary from tribe to tribe. That reality, coupled each tribal nation’s unique needs, is why a task force is necessary, Pourier said.
“This is not a problem the tribes can solve on their own. This is not a problem the state can solve on its own. We need each other,” Pourier said.
The bill was amended on the floor to appease concerns raised earlier in the week at the House Judiciary Committee, where members suggested that the task force’s six study areas were too heavy a lift. Committee members also urged the inclusion of inquiries on substance abuse on that list.
Language requiring the study of substance abuse and addiction disorders was added; two study areas were removed. That was enough to earn the support of Rep. Scott Odenbach. The Spearfish Republican opposed the first two foster care bills, but said he was swayed by the continued concerns of the tribes.
“We heard, basically, unanimity from the tribes on this,” Odenbach said.
The length of time for the study still came up on the House floor, however. The task force’s eight meetings and 17 members would have taken a bigger bite out of the budget for the state’s Legislative Research Council than the typical summer study, said Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls.
Only four of the 17 members would have been lawmakers.
“We’re paying for it, but we’re not staffing it,” Venhuizen said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that may overturn the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires social service agencies to give priority to Native foster families in the placement of abused and neglected children.
“I’m not sure this is the right time to be looking at our state laws,” Venhuizen said.
That case wouldn’t change the goals of the task force or the importance of the issue in the state, Pourier said in rebuttal, just prior to the final vote.
“Regardless of the decision in the Supreme Court, we have to decide, as the state of South Dakota, what is important to us,” she said.
The House rejected the measure 42-26.
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