PIERRE - State government is not complying with provisions of the
Indian Child Welfare Act, legislators were told Friday.
Generations of American Indian children have been torn from their
families and have lost their heritage, according to Sen. Michael
Many others told the House State Affairs Committee that the South
Dakota Social Services Department and state courts largely ignore
ICWA requirements that are intended to place Indian children with
Indian families when those children are taken away from their parents.
Legislators were told that far too many Indian children are in state
foster care, usually in non-Indian families, and far too many Indian
children are adopted by non-Indian families.
LaPointe said the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran a misguided program
for decades that removed Indian children from their parents for
adoption by non-Indian families on the premise that the children
needed to be rescued from their culture.
Before the program was ended by 1978 enactment of ICWA, thousands of
Indian children were deprived of their native roots, he said. Many of
those people are still searching for their real families, LaPointe
"These children were stripped of their heritage and other extended
family members that could have easily provided safety for their well-
being," he said.
Although ICWA was intended to keep Indian children with relatives, if
possible, or with members of their own tribe, state failure to
properly observe the act has continued the tragedy, LaPointe said.
"Many of these adopted children who had been placed outside their
immediate family homes have suffered terrible mental and emotional
toll," LaPointe said. "When these children become adults, they have
higher rates of suicide, higher incarceration rates, higher rates of
depression and alcohol and substance abuse."
Accurately gauging state shortcomings under the federal law cannot be
determined without a comprehensive study, he said.
SB211 would implement such a study, including an independent
evaluation of state compliance with ICWA, he said. The study group
would meet several times this year and provide a report to next
year's Legislature, LaPointe added.
Virgena Wieseler, state child protection services head, said her
agency wants to comply with the federal act. The legislation could
serve as a focal point for discussion on the subject with South
Dakota's Indian tribes, she said.
Deb Bowman, a member of Mike Rounds' senior staff, said that the
Rounds is trying to enhance relations with tribes and that he is
aware that the state needs to improve its compliance with ICWA.
The committee voted 8-3 to send the bill to the House floor, although
a parade of people told the panel to kill the measure.
Opponents said the study would be of little use, arguing
unsuccessfully for a bill that would simply direct the state to
comply with ICWA.
"This is an extremely passionate issue amongst our people," Terry
Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare
Association in Portland, Ore., said.
South Dakota must follow ICWA provisions, he said. Cross said the
state must notify tribes when it takes Indian children from their
families. Tribes must be allowed to intervene in those court
proceedings, and the opportunity must be given to allow placement of
those children with relatives or members of their extended families,
South Dakota has the nation's highest proportion of Indian children
in foster or adoptive care, Cross said.
Mary Ann Bear Heels McCowan of Pierre, a member of the Rosebud Sioux
Tribe, also opposed the study measure. She said South Dakota must
take steps now to ensure that Indian children who are removed from
their homes are placed with Indian families.
Far too many Indians have been sent to non-Indian families over the
years, she said.
"It is hard to find a family on our reservation who did not
experience this in their immediate or extended family," McCowan said.
Diane Garreau, Indian child welfare director for the Cheyenne River
Sioux Tribe, said nearly two-thirds of South Dakota children in
foster care are Indians. She said there is "a pattern of complacency
and indifference" in the state toward ICWA.
"There is no evidence of a single case where a hearing was held prior
to placing an Indian child into foster care," Garreau said.
Despite strong opposition from the Indian community, SB211 was moved
out of the committee in hopes that a study would identify problems
and lead to better state adherence of ICWA.
"Something is better than doing nothing," Rep. Matthew Michels, R-
Yankton, said. "Doing nothing ... is inadequate."