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NPR: South Dakota Foster Care Uses Native American Children as Cash Crop?

Last updated on 2013.05.16

So that's what the governor was so upset about.

Last week Governor Dennis Daugaard pre-emptively rebutted an investigative report from National Public Radio on South Dakota's foster care system and our state's failure to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act. He issued a press release blasting NPR reporter Laura Sullivan for clear bias and shoddy reporting. Daugaard's attack focused on charges of conflict of interest in his position as Lieutenant Governor and executive director of the Children's Home Society, which draws millions in federal funds for the foster care services it provides.

A week later, NPR has put up part one of the three-part report by Sullivan and Amy Walters. This first report doesn't mention Daugaard, although one paragraph in the introduction to the investigative series suggests the dish on Daugaard is coming:

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 [sic]. 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 [Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families," NPR, 2011.10.25].

(Governor Daugaard may also wish to add bad spellchecking to his list of complaints.)

I will agree with the Governor in so far as his work for Children's Home Society during his tenure as lieutenant governor is far from some great political secret that only an investigative report could unearth.

But so far, the report is much less individual gotcha journalism against one man and more an indictment of what looks like a corrupt and racist social services system that targets Native American youth to draw big federal payments.

In South Dakota, Native American children make up only 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half the children in foster care. An NPR News investigation has found that the state is removing 700 native children every year, sometimes in questionable circumstances. According to a review of state records, it is also largely failing to place native children with their relatives or tribes.

According to state records, almost 90 percent of the kids in family foster care are in non-native homes or group care [Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, "Incentives and Cultural Bias Fuel Foster System," NPR, 2011.10.25].

Sullivan and Walters find that even as the state disproportionately places Lakota children in white homes, Lakota foster families still wait to get kids:

Marcella Dion... [is] 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 [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].

Now one can argue that, with economic conditions worse on the reservations than in white South Dakota, one would expect there to be more Native American children in need of foster services and fewer Native American families with the wherewithal to provide them. But Sullivan and Walters find a perverse financial incentive for the state of South Dakota to take Native American kids out of their homes:

Sometimes, though, it's not just cultural differences. Jolene Abourezk worked for the department for seven years. She says when she worked there, removing kids was expected.

Department officials told her, "It's good, you are doing a good job for taking more kids," Abourezk says. "It's just the norm here. It happens so often people don't question it. So you know if something happens all the time the same way, people don't question it anymore. It's just how it's done.

...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 [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].

And we have made our own rules to make Native American kids even more profitable:

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.

In 10 years, this adoption bonus program has brought South Dakota almost a million dollars [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].

Sullivan and Walters talk to former state legislator Bill Napoli, who saw the foster rolls and federal money ballooning in the 1990s. Napoli says the Legislature couldn't rein in social services, since the money came straight from the federal government.

Sullivan and Walters also talk to former governor Bill Janklow, who seems oblivious to the plight of Native American children and instead says that nearly one hundred million dollars in annual federal aid is "incredibly important":

"I mean look, we're a poor state," he says. "We're not a high income state. We're like North Dakota without oil. We're like Nebraska without Omaha and Lincoln. We don't have resources. We don't have wealth. We don't have high income jobs. We don't have factories opening here hiring people in high wage jobs" [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].

Maybe Janklow said much more on the issue off tape, but the above comment seems to say, "We need the money. Who cares how we get it?" (Plus, it's not exactly the sales pitch our current governor gives to sell our state to potential residents and entrepreneurs.)

As NPR rolls this story out, Governor Daugaard should be concerned about much more than personal political damage that may come from his association with a private group making big money off foster care. The governor and all of us should be much more gravely concerned about a system that appears to target our Native American neighbors, tear their families apart, and perpetuate the same racist abuses our forefathers committed for over a century with assimilationist Indian boarding schools, all for the sake of pumping more federal dollars into our lackluster state economy.

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  1. larry kurtz 2011.10.26

    You rock, Cory. Where is the South Dakota press anyway? Oh yeah, accounts payable at the Governor's Club....

  2. Matt Groce 2011.10.26

    I sat in my car, in my driveway, for 15 minutes listening to this yesterday. I couldn't turn it off.

    I was surprised to learn that the State could remove children from a parent, even if that parent has never been charged with a crime.

    But I was stunned by the line you quoted. "South Dakota designated all Native American children special needs.” That is so unbelievably racist. To say that regardless of circumstance, an entire race of people are "special needs" just because of their racial heritage... it leaves me speechless.

    Something else that stood out. "South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states."

    As many a wise old South Dakotan has told me, where there's smoke, there's fire.

  3. Chris 2011.10.26

    So, when does Daugaard resign?

    Maybe that would only happen in states like North Dakota or Nebraska.

  4. Wayne B. 2011.10.26

    [Something else that stood out. “South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states.” ]

    This also alarmed me. For a conservative state where many of us just want to mind our own business and be left alone, this really screams out at me.

    The story seemed a little heavy on the anecdotes, even heavier on leading language, and a little light on clear stats & figures. How many native vs. nonnative foster homes are there? What percentage of each is full? What percentage have no children? Are there quiet criteria which prevent some from getting children?

  5. Charlie Johnson 2011.10.26

    I was listening to this also on my tractor radio. I didn't know whether I should stop the tractor to cry or put my head down in shame as a resident of this state. GDD has "politically manure" on his hands.

  6. David Newquist 2011.10.26

    Exploiting the reservation people and taking children from them is what reservations were designed for. It's a long history, and it is the will of the majority that controls and runs this state.

  7. Thad Wasson 2011.10.26

    Where are the Native men? Where are the great Chiefs to lead this fatherless community? Young women having mulitple children out of wedlock while the men disappear into a bottle or worse.

    It's time to rid the nation of the reservation system. Allow the First Nations men to be men and lead their tribes.

  8. Erin 2011.10.26

    Thad, it's generally bad form to blame the victims of systemic racism for the effects of said racist policies. Tell me, how exactly will getting rid of the reservation system improve the situation?

  9. larry kurtz 2011.10.26

    Erin, may ip answer your question? Thad, may ip answer Erin's question?

  10. joeboo22 2011.10.26

    As far as the governors part. The only part I mention on that is if he was a democrat what would the legislature and media be saying?

    As far as the rest, some of it I'll give the state a break on it, but when you are pulling that many kids out and qualified foster homes are empty on the reservation there is a problem. When you are pulling the babies out but letting the older kids stay, that is a big problem in my book.

    At the very best it makes the state look like a bunch of government money hungry racist.

  11. Erin 2011.10.26

    By all means, Larry!

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.10.26

    Wayne, you touch on an important aspect of the story: the idea of a state agency seizing children at school without notifying the parents ought to alarm and outrage every South Dakotan, and not just the conservative ones.

    Joe, I've decided that hypothetical arguments like the one you offer (would media attack a Dem governor on problems like this) get us nowhere. I can say that my blog and NPR would say the same thing; you can say that we'd hold our tongues. We can dream up all the statements and silences we want, but such fantasies are straw men that serve no purpose but to incorrectly reinforce our prejudices. Find me an actual analogous situation with a Democrat, compare real media responses.

    That said, I am not nearly as interested in the political conflict of interest story as I am about the fact that fiscal and racial factors appear to have created a social services system that hurts kids, hurts families, and destroys culture. The governor's press release focuses far too much on political damage control and rebuttal; instead, it should focus on acknowledging there is a problem in the foster care system and talking about how we can fix that problem. Our state government should be held accountable, not so much for the possible political conflict of interest (and that's the big topic in part 2 of the NPR investigation, posted this afternoon), but for allowing a system that harms children to gain so much momentum.

  13. JohnKelley 2011.10.26

    The story's words ripping my ears and throat are that Indian foster home after Indian foster home has vacancies while the state places Indian children with white strangers - 700 a year. My gut reaction is to investigate quitting my job to defend these families.

    Thad, Larry, twice at least, the US tried getting rid of reservation system. Those attempts failed miserably. Besides if you believe in the US Constitution, without cherry-picking it, Indians and Indian nations are prominent in it, they had more rights than did women or blacks -- likely as a result of King Philip's War and other struggles.

  14. Thad Wasson 2011.10.26

    The reservation system would be abolished along with the BIA and most of the Interior Department. Federal land, rich with natural resources, would be returned to the First Nations. This would allow the Natives to rebuild their community and families with pride and self-determination.

  15. Erin 2011.10.26

    "Federal land, rich with natural resources, would be returned to the First Nations."

    I'm with you, Thad. This seems like the only sane and just way to abolish the reservation system.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.10.26

    Careful, now: will First Nations worldviews allow them to exploit those natural resources in ways that would provide the wealth necessary to rebuild and sustain their communities? Or am I looking at that problem with white man's eyes and missing some other sort of rebuilding that could take place in less exploitative use of those returned lands?

    Now until we can arrange such a federal land give-back, are there any tribe-specific foster care models we could adopt? Is there a tiospaye-based (extended family) model of child protection and intervention we could use?

  17. Douglas Wiken 2011.10.26

    I suspect the reality is that tribes getting back any more land is a dream that leads nowhere and diverts attention from real problems and real solutions.

    SD tribes are sitting on a chunk of money they won't take for the Black Hills. They will get something out of the suits over improper payments for oil, minerals, etc. as well.

    The tribes in Utah and Arizona have coal and that does not seem to be solving their problems even as it has polluted their environment and dried up their water.

    Specialists in cultural superiority of any kind blame others for their own problems while their own harping on pride seems misplaced by reality of their behavior.

  18. mike 2011.10.26

    My grandmother used to take children in from the reservation through the foster program. Most of the children were abused or neglected. Sometimes brutally.

    Most of the cases the children were taken away because of alcohol abuse. I don't understand the reason for drinking but it is far too common.

    Some of the parents were wonderful people but many just didn't make their kids a priority.

    It was always hard for me to see my friends (I was 8-10 at the time) with black eyes, welts or bruises from abusive parents or friends.

    Breaks my heart to see children mistreated.

  19. joeboo22 2011.10.27

    Douglas- I use to believe there was a chunk of money that sat out there for the Black Hills, but a few years ago some of them brought it up and said that with legal fees that each individual would get a lot less then the total makes it sound.

    Corey- I agree that the Governors part of this is not the priority in the article and is actually just a tidbit of the article. I just think that it needs to be looked at a little closer.

    Overall though the article makes South Dakota look bad. I understand a disaportionate amount of Native Americans being taken away from their parents, having been on the reservation that does not surprise me, but when reservation based foster homes are empty and the off the reservation ones are full that upsets me. And do not tell me that the white ones are better, I know of plenty white foster parents that have no business whatsoever being part of the foster system, yet they get cleared every time people come to investigate.

    And if the parents are so bad why are they only taking away the babies and not the rest of the kids? I know why. Babies are easier to get placed (especially for natives) and are more likely to get adopted quickly if it comes to that. My mom worked in Arizona on the reservation and said it was amazing how much quicker social services acted if it was a baby compared to an older child.

  20. Wayne B. 2011.10.27

    Joeboo, that makes sense... I suspect it's also much more traumatic for a child to be taken away from a family than a baby; the child has had an opportunity to form relationships and memories.

    Infants are also much more vulnerable to abuse. If dad's hit the bottle then thinks it'd be a good idea to get verbally/physically abusive, at least the kids have some form of ability to leave the situation, even if it's crossing the street to grandma's. Infants don't.

    I don't want to glaze over the practical side of the DSS equation either. I can't imagine the ability to place a kid consciously / subconsciously affects the decision to sieze a kid.

    The piece aired this morning did a better job of emphasizing that a majority of states are failing to follow federal law. Still not a day to be proud of SD. Even if there is no impropriety, it definitely looks it.

  21. mercedes helmsley 2011.10.27

    Terrific headline - says it all.

  22. larry kurtz 2011.10.27

    Reposted at the War Toilet in regards to Brendan Johnson not investigating Matt Varilek: "“The conflicts of interest and incestuous nature of this whole arrangement boggle the mind,” said Tony Post, executive director of the South Dakota GOP."

    Nice swerve, eh?

  23. Lily L. Diamond 2011.11.01

    I wouldn't be alive to write this if it weren't for a Lakota medicine woman who attended my mother's very premature birth in 1916 in Wagner, South Dakota. (Her father was the town dentist and his best friend, the town doctor, but my grannie's best friend thought it wiser to go to the Reservation for help, as their offices were farther away). I remembered that fact after the shock and the anger I felt at hearing the first part of the NPR series on the radio begin to subside. The situation that is going on, removing Native American children from their homes and putting them in White foster care is a violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was put in place to end the horrible history of taking Native American from their homes and placing them in White boarding schools where they were forced to give up their languages and their way of life. So many, many people who are hearing this series want to do something about it. I am working on writing petitions to be circulated online. Thanks for the article! May true justice and compassion come quickly to South Dakota children and families.

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.11.01

    Thank you, Lily! We all certainly want to do something. But here's one conceptual complication I keep coming up against: how do we ensure that any solution that comes from the white man doesn't end up imposing just some other form of our institutional racism? I'm not saying we white folks can't do anyone any good, but well-intentioned imperialism is still imperialism. Suggestions?

  25. Lily L. Diamond 2011.11.01

    Yes, Caheidelberger, we most certainly can't ensure it, we can only take steps with as much wisdom and compassion and saavy as we can muster. The first thing I did after I'd compiled a list of websites and organizations relating to the issue was to get in touch with the tribal organizations in South Dakota and ask their advice about how to help. I had a long discussion with a tribal member who works in Communications. He specifically told me that the way to help is for us to write our own representatives in Congress and the Senate, to the DSS of South Dakota, the Governor of South Dakota, and to the Sub Committee on Indian Affairs. I asked if there were tribal statements on the issue (there are 9 tribes in South Dakota) and he said that it was in process, but it takes time, especially as there is no formal organization uniting the 9 tribes. He said that fact that there is no official relationship between the state of South Dakota and the Native Americans is one of the biggest problems. The treaty of 1868 gave them a relationship with the Federal Government, but not with the State. Tribal Relations Secretary held by J.R. La Plante is a very new position started this year, and of course, he is also on the list of people and organizations to send letters and petitions too.
    This feels like an excellent time to demand investigation and change, as many Americans are shaking off the habit of apathy and are taking a stand against corruption.

  26. ca 2011.12.08

    I just spent 2 weeks researching this topic, motivated by NPR's exemplary reporting. I sat, dumbfounded when I first heard the story and have been sickened as the research I have done uncovers years and years of cover up, denial, racism, and corrupt behavior. There will be no easy can there be when it stems back to years of hurt, animosity, and betrayal. Only by a willingness to open and honest dialogue and concentrated efforts at Reconciliation will any resolution be reached. This should be about children's welfare and safety, and instead it has become something far more insidious. I am disgusted by what I have read and by our elected politicians' inability to make a statement.
    The response that I have is somehow be at peace with is that I chose to look at poverty in a different light (henri nouwen) and uncover ways that I might assist in helping communities and/or reservations work out of the assets that they possess, rather than concentrating on the years of damage already done. If reservations have to exist, let's work to come alongside, listen, learn, and work to equip and empower one another not be dependent on a "system" to care for us. Let's work to re-define community as more communal....just a thought.

  27. Carli 2011.12.08

    There seems to be some missing pieces to this story. I know someone who was a school administrator near one of the reservations and he said there were continuous family issues. The police were often on the reservation too.

    I'd like to see 20/20 get in there and do some investigative work to see which side is telling the truth. Both sides might have some truth to their stories but what is the resolution for child abuse?
    Of course the kids might be put into white foster homes more often. South Dakota is a white state. Are the NA foster homes on the reservation?

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