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South Dakota Retaliates Against Investigations of Native Foster Care Abuse?

Last updated on 2014.01.14

Remember the controversial NPR report last October that investigated inequities in South Dakota's treatment of Native American children in our foster care system? Well, that radio journalism was good enough to win reporter Laura Sullivan and her NPR producers a 2012 Peabody Award, the oldest and most prestigious award for electronic media.

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform alleges that good national journalism isn't protecting local Native advocates from retaliation by South Dakota officials. NCCPR's blog suggests there are dots to be connected between the state ACLU's follow-up to the NPR investigations and the state's taking of ACLU-SD director Robert Doody's stepdaughter into foster care.

Um, NCCPR, you might want to drop that argument. The seizure of Doody's stepdaughter probably had much more to do with the fact that he beat the twelve-year-old girl with a belt than any political agenda.

The NCCPR supports a second allegation of whistleblower retaliation with a bit more substance. They cite a Lakota People's Law Project report on the case of Brandon Taliaferro. The former deputy state's attorney was fired from his job in Brown County last September. LPLP says that Attorney General Marty Jackley charged Taliaferro and court-appointed child advocate Shirley Schwab with witness tampering and subornation of perjury just two weeks after the NPR broadcast of its findings of abuse in South Dakota's foster care system. Taliaferro and Schwab say the charges are retaliation for their efforts to protect Lakota children from foster care abuse:

According to Lakota People's Law Project (LPLP) investigators, the charges against Mr. Taliaferro and Mrs. Schwab were filed because of their repeated attempts to protect and enforce the rights of four young Native American girls, ages 7, 9, 14 and 16, who were involuntarily removed from their Lakota mother by D.S.S. officials and placed with Richard and Gwendolyn Mette. Mr. Taliaferro conducted a professional investigation and concluded that Richard Mette had repeatedly sexually molested the two older girls, while Gwendolyn Mette threatened to punish the children if they told authorities. Repeated reports of Richard and Gwendolyn Mette's conduct were conveyed to D.S.S. officials. However, the D.S.S. steadfastly refused to undertake any investigation of the Mettes. The four girls had originally been placed with the Mettes, a white couple, over the repeated objections of the girls' adult sister, who had asked that the girls be placed with her, as is required by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. In placing the Indian girls with the Mettes, the South Dakota D.S.S. violated section 1915 of the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act that mandates that all active efforts necessary be undertaken by state D.S.S. officials to place Indian children removed from their Native parents' homes with their closest Indian relatives.

Mr. Taliaffero and Mrs. Schwab assert that South Dakota State Attorney General Jackley and his Department of Criminal Investigation operatives are actively coordinating with D.S.S. officials to use fabricated allegations of "unauthorized disclosure of confidential abuse and neglect information" and "witness tampering" to try to discredit the clear and convincing evidence that incriminates both Richard and Gwendolyn Mette of criminal conduct against the Indian children placed in their custody by the State D.S.S. These actions came immediately after the embarrassing National Public Radio expose of the decade-long pattern of unlawful conduct on the part of South Dakota State officials ["Justice as Retaliation," Lakota People's Law Project, May 21, 2012].

This spring, Richard Mette pled 34 felony charges involving five alleged victims down to a single charge of rape against a nine-year-old girl, for which Judge Jon Flemmer gave him 15 years in prison. Beadle County state's attorney Michael Moore arranged that deal. He was also appointed by AG Jackley to prosecute Taliaferro and Schwab. Moore was supposed to bring them to court this week, but a change in judges has delayed that trial.

The Mette-Taliaferro case is not pleasant to look at. But the media need to look closely so we can learn exactly what happened and ensure that our courts and Department of Social Services are acting in the best interest of all of our children.


  1. Vickie 2012.06.11

    I'm pretty much at a loss for words. This is so incredibly disturbing on So.Many.Levels!!

  2. Peter Carrels 2012.06.12

    Thanks for this information. The case is disturbing, I agree, but also very confusing. I read the local newspaper and never connected the Mette case with the other, larger case of foster children and Native Americans. Why hasn't the statewide issue of foster care placement of Native Americans and alleged abuses within that system attracted greater attention? The NPR story introduced the situation, but nothing has happened since. This is perplexing.

  3. testor15 2012.06.12

    In the long history of white Christian righteousness, to bad things they do to the lessors amongst us should be overlooked. They are receiving the 'blessings' of the Lord during the abuse.

  4. SRM 2012.06.17

    According to NCCPR, Mr. Doody's child was removed very shortly after the NPR series and has not returned. Although I do not advocate using a belt on a child, I question whether the situation described warranted removal of the child. I am not familiar with SD state laws, but most state laws allow a degree of latitude for parental discipline, including corporal punishment. Under such laws, abuse/neglect laws are triggered if the discipline has resulted in or is likely to result in significant physical and emotional harm. In most cases, the child's welfare is not served by removing the child; foster care is much more likely to result in the substantial harm removal is intended to prevent. A few years ago, a ND parent (who happened to be African-American) had his kids removed over an isolated incident involving spanking with a belt after one child pushed his little brother down a short flight of steps. The parents were forced to sign a "safety plan". Later, when the father called the CPS investigator to tell her he was taking his son to the doctor to establish whether any physical abuse had occurred, she sent police officers to his home to take the child and the child's siblings (who had not been spanked), he was tackled and arrested. He was charged with interfering with law enforcement and with resisting. The police then faxed a complaint to the parent's landlord alleging "child abuse with violence" resulting in their immediate eviction. He was never criminally charged for the alleged "abuse with violence". Since the wife was a property manager for the apartment complex and the husband was a self-employed IT consultant, the eviction resulted in loss of employment for both of them, as well as making them homeless. The children were in county custody for 5 months. During that time the husband's case went to trial. One of the arresting officers admitted on the stand that he, too, had at times spanked his own children and yes, at times had used an object to do so. The judge ruled that the removal was unlawful, dismissing the charge of interfering and instructing the jury that the officers' unlawful action provided a defense against the resisting charge. The husband was acquitted. Later, the county quietly withdrew its foster care petition in juvenile court, never acknowledging that the removal was unlawful or its role in the unlawful action. Family counseling required by the county led the therapist to conclude that the major issue affecting the family was its struggle to cope with what happened when the county intervened. I expect the ACLU lawyer pled guilty in order to get the criminal case over with as quickly as possible, and is still likely struggling with the bureaucratic nightmare that child welfare can be.

  5. iyutapi win 2013.01.09

    If the NPR reports' numbers on the amount of federal aid Native American children bring into the state are even anywhere near correct, doesn't it make you wonder WHY none of this is being followed on a state level? I live across the state in Rapid City and have a hard time following the case. If indeed the state officials, along with the justice department, are involved in the manner it appears, why wouldn't the press be limited? I think this goes a lot deeper than many realize and it is kind of scary to imagine how many people could potentially be involved. As a Native American in South Dakota I am appalled that neither this case in particular, nor the NPR report has received much, if any, coverage in this state.

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