Jessica Eagle Star helps her son Noran across the monkey bars at the park in Winner on Aug. 29, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
South Dakota officials have known Native American children are overrepresented in the foster care system for nearly 50 years. The Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 federal law, was meant to tackle the problem not just in the state but across the country at a time when Native children were regularly removed from their families.
But despite ICWA and a 2004 state commission to study ICWA compliance in South Dakota, Native American children continue to predominate in the state’s foster care system. They accounted for nearly 74% of children in the foster care system at the end of fiscal year 2023 — despite accounting for only 13% of the state’s overall child population.
The Lost Children
This is part of the first installment in a series of stories by South Dakota Searchlight and the Argus Leader about the overrepresentation of Native American children in the state’s foster care system.
The lack of effective action to address the root causes and overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system is shattering families across the state and risking the futures of children in the nine tribal nations across South Dakota, said Marcella Gilbert, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe elder and former foster village administrator.
Native American children in South Dakota have a 22% chance of being removed from their families and placed in the foster care system before they turn 18 — seven times higher than a white South Dakota child’s risk of entering the system, according to studies examining the risk of foster care placement for children across the nation.
Native children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care are more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders; to be incarcerated or homeless; and to die earlier than their counterparts who have not been removed, studies show. The trauma of being removed from their homes is compounded by a loss of cultural ties. And in the future, studies indicate these children are more likely to have their own children removed from their care, like their parents before them.
The Argus Leader and South Dakota Searchlight have spent months conducting dozens of interviews, traveling to meet activists, state officials and families, and analyzing data to understand why Native children continue to be overrepresented in the child welfare system. In this nine-part series, we explore solutions and the effects on families and children from a system Gilbert has deemed “not caring.”
“Foster care is not a caring system,” she said. “If it was, we would be successful. Our communities would be successful.”
The separation of Native American families has its roots in the boarding school-era, which started in the 1880s and continued through the 1960s. The federal government and Christian churches sought to forcefully assimilate Native children to Western culture by removing them from their own culture, traditions and language. Children who never returned from a boarding school in Pennsylvania — including some removed from South Dakota — came to be known as the “lost children of Carlisle.”
ICWA was inspired in part by the boarding school-era and by the adoption policies of the mid-1900s. The law was sponsored by the late South Dakota Sen. James Abourzek and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in July.
ICWA requires that the best interest of Indigenous children be prioritized. That includes keeping children near their family and culture and doing everything to ensure family reunification could happen through active efforts. The law seeks to stabilize Native families and keep Native children at home across the country.
South Dakota is one of the only states in the Upper Midwest, Great Plains and West that has not codified ICWA protections in state law.
Three bills introduced during the 2023 legislative session, backed by tribal leaders, would’ve enshrined portions of ICWA into state statute in case they were struck down federally, and also would have established a state task force on Indigenous children in the welfare system. Those bills were defeated, having not gained the support of the Department of Social Services or the Department of Tribal Relations.
Native American leaders and social workers are calling for changes to save their children and their culture. At a minimum, they’re asking for better state compliance with ICWA and better communication among key players in the foster care system: the state, tribes, foster parents and nonprofits.
Foster parents are requesting easier ways to learn about tribal and cultural customs for their foster children and to connect children with their culture.
Family members who take in their own relatives as foster children — a situation known as a “kinship care” — are looking for financial support and more resources through the state.
Biological parents with children in the system are begging for leniency and an end to premature termination of parental rights as they jump through requirements set in place by the state and the courts to be reunited with their children.
State officials say their relationship with the tribes has been strained by contentious discussions about the welfare of Native children. Gov. Kristi Noem said her administration invited the nine tribes at the beginning of the year to discuss the issue, but they have not accepted the offer.
David Flute, the state secretary of tribal relations, echoed the governor’s statement.
“If the tribes were to come to the table and discuss these issues, I think we might see some better progress,” Flute said.
Leaders and activists aren’t giving up. Across tribal nations, foster care villages have sprung up to keep Native children close to their families and their cultures. One tribal nation created a task force to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster system. A camp connects urban, adopted and fostered Native American children to their culture. The state and tribes are working together to create a “Family First Prevention Plan” to keep children out of foster care.
And lawmakers preparing for the legislative session in January are considering the introduction of a state ICWA bill to fill in compliance gaps.
“The state’s goal is to do right by ICWA. How do we attack this issue together?” said Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, a tribal member who’s developing the bill. “This is a South Dakota issue. These are South Dakota families.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.