Press "Enter" to skip to content

Taliaferro-Schwab Case Shows the Ugly Politics of South Dakota Foster Care

Last updated on 2014.03.02

Everything in South Dakota is political. Walk with me.

A reader reminded me this week of the Taliaferro-Schwab case in Aberdeen. I mentioned the story just once on these pages, in June, 2012. Let's review some details:

  1. Brandon Taliaferro was assistant state's attorney for Brown County.
  2. Shirley Schwab was a court-appointed child advocate.
  3. Taliaferro and Schwab were advocates for the American Indian foster children of Richard and Gwendolyn ("Wendy") Mette, a white couple from Aberdeen.
  4. Richard Mette faced 23 charges of sexually abusing his foster children. In March 2012, he pled guilty to one count of rape.
  5. Wendy Mette faced 11 charges of child abuse. In April 2012, the state dropped all charges against her.
  6. Special prosecutor Michael Moore, brought in from Beadle County, said the state dropped nearly all charges against the Mettes in part because of concerns that Taliaferro and Schwab had tampered with the child witnesses.
  7. In May 2012, the state charged Taliaferro and Schwab with witness tampering and other crimes related to the Mette case.

Since then, Taliaferro and Schwab have been exonerated. In January 2013, Judge Gene Paul Kean threw out the state's case against Taliaferro and Schwab before the defense could call a single witness. Judge Kean said the state failed to present evidence of any criminal activity. But that seems slim cosmic compensation for the bad news: in August 2012, according to Albert Bender of People's World, the Department of Social Services "took the four female children from the custody of their adult biological sister and... returned them to Ms. Mette."

In June 2012, I quoted a report from the Lakota People's Law Project, which contended that the state's prosecution Brandon Taliaferro and Shirley Schwab was political retaliation for Taliaferro's and Schwab's work in defense of Native American children. LPLP has since issued another, even more damning report that reinforces its contention that Taliaferro and Schwab caught heat for threatening the powers that be.

The Mette case was coming to boil when, on October 25, 2011, National Public Radio aired the beginning of its exposé on South Dakota's failure to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act in its placement of American Indian foster children. The Daugaard Administration hotly contested that report even before it came out.

Right or wrong, the October 2011 NPR story made South Dakota's foster care system look bad. The prosecution of the Mette case would have put faces on that story. The evidence the young American Indian victims would have presented against their white foster parents would have opened the door for even worse publicity and possibly lawsuits against the Department of Social Services.

The state acted quickly to discredit and silence that testimony. According to the Lakota People's Law Project, the state Department of Criminal Investigations pulled the Mettes' foster children from school on November 4, 2011, and interrogated them without their attorney present. Almost immediately thereafter, the state executed search warrants on Taliaferro's and Schwab's offices and homes. The state went to court to keep Taliaferro and Schwab from having any contact with the foster children.

And fourteen months later, after returning the children to the supervision of the foster mother accused of abusing them, after ruining Taliaferro's and Schwab's careers and driving them to spend $180,000 on their legal defense, the state let its flimsy case against Taliaferro and Schwab collapse.

Taliaferro puts the case more bluntly. He accuses the state of covering its backside by committing gross abuses of its own against the foster children:

As a young attorney, what struck me the most about the Mette case was how the state systematically removed every person in the children's support system, placed the children back in the abusive home, sabotaged the cases and all to try and avoid being sued by the children, to manufacture a defense to my labor grievance, and to derail my campaign for Brown County State's Attorney.

First, the state got rid of me, the only prosecutor who actually cared about their safety and whom the children trusted. Then the state went after the children's attorney and coerced her with lies to abandon the children for fear the state would bring false charges against her. Then the state went after the children's psychologist and court appointed special advocate and had them removed based on lies. Then the state went after the judge presiding on the case and recused him. This left the children with only their biological sister and brother in law. The state went after them, too, and scared them so bad that they fled the state in fear. Once the children's entire support system was systematically destroyed, the state dismissed 22 felonies against the admitted child-rapist adoptive father. That still wasn't enough. The state needed to return the children to the adoptive mother to lessen the likelihood of, if not completely destroy, the children's lawsuit.

The one remaining obstacle in the state's path was the 11 felony child abuse charges pending against the adoptive mother. The state's solution to that major hurdle was to dismiss all her charges and publicly blame me, Shirley and Dr. Sippel. The state had to find a way to spin the dismissal of charges to avoid public outrage. The state accomplished the needed PR spin by bringing 15 false and malicious criminal charges against me and Shirley [Brandon Taliaferro, quoted in Lakota People's Law Project, "Abandoned and Forgotten: South Dakota's State Concealed Sexual Exploitation of Lakota Children," 2013.05.05, p. 16].

If advocates for our Lakota neighbors believe our state government is capable of such exploitation of Indian children, then reconciliation doesn't stand a chance.

This conversation can take many directions, almost all of them political. Let me point to just one of those directions: who on the ballot this year was a key player in this legal farce? November 2011, the state went further in its attacks on Taliaferro and Schwab, under direct orders from Attorney General Marty Jackley.... The AG's office assigned Special Prosecutor Moore to this investigation, in additon to the Mette case. DCI Agent Marc Black executed search warrants....

During one of the raids, Black records a discussion he had with Schwab. This recording was later turned over to Taliaferro and Schwab's defense team during the discovery phase of their trial. In the recording, Black says, "The Attorney General himself has told me to work on this until I am done with it. This is my priority case right now, short of a homicide happening" [LPLP, 2013.05.15, p. 10].

Any number of criminal acts could have been going on in South Dakota at that moment—diversion of state funds, abuse of power in the Secretary of State's office, who knows what. But Attorney General Marty Jackley gave near-murder level priority to protecting a rapist from possibly inaccurate testimony from his abused foster children.

Someone needs to answer for the Taliaferro-Schwab case and the ugly politics of South Dakota's foster care system. Let's start with Marty Jackley as he comes around to ask us to hire him to keep doing the same fine work for another four years.


  1. Lanny V Stricherz 2014.01.15

    If South Dakota were a third world country, there would be civil war and rioting in the streets because of this corrupt and incestuous type government.

  2. Sid 2014.01.15

    Remember-These are the same people who have ruled Benda's death a suicide. When they continue to cover up information, is it any wonder why no one believes them? The way Jackley operates, his name should be changed to "Marty Jackboot".

  3. mike mcclaren 2014.01.15

    The party of family values shows once again how little they value young life,especially once a fetus is born. They won't pay to feed,nurture,educate or protect a fetus once it is on it's own. Pro-life appears to be Pro-pre-viability life.

  4. Rick 2014.01.15

    DWC hero Ted Klaudt might be wondering why he wasn't afforded such support from the Attorney General's office.

  5. Diana Barrett 2014.01.15

    So how are the children doing? What is happening with them now? They are back in the home of an abuser, is anyone doing daily checks to see if they are alright? Hopefully, the husband is not around the children, the wife should not even be around the children, actually neither one of these people should be around any child! The children should not have been returned to these people, even if the charges had been dropped.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.01.15

    Diana, there's a lot to tell in this story. I hesitate to pry into the children's lives. The husband is in the State Pen, serving 15 years (eligible for parole in 6.5, I think I read). The children are with Wendy Mette (now Larson). The LPLP report cited above alleges that "Mr. Mette is now writing letters to his underage Lakota victims despite a no contact order as part of his sentence."

  7. Jaka 2014.01.15

    Any breathing human being that reads the LDLP report as (linked above) and fails to be damned angry at Pierre gov't and (still votes for more of the same in future) should look in the mirror each morning and wonder about their 'hereafter'!!!!!!

  8. David Newquist 2014.01.15

    The case will be ongoing, largely because Taliaferro and Schwab still have to raise funds to cover their legal expenses. Judge Kean dismissed the case, but while there was an aggressive investigation to try to find evidence to support the charges against Taliaferro and Schwab, once those charges were found without merit and were dismissed, there was no investigation against the state's attorney and subordinate personnel to look into apparent acts of misconduct by either the justice system or the bar association. The former state's attorney, Kim Dorsett, ran as a Democrat, and the new Democratic candidate lost the election to Republican Larry Lovrien, because he was well known as a former magistrate and because many Brown County Democrats resent the way the ones who ran under the party banner have represented themselves in office. As one very prominent person put it, how can you claim to have a justice system when the state and county get away with what they did to Taliaferro and Schwab? And the county judicial process does not seem to have improved with the change in party sponsors.

  9. Lynn G. 2014.01.15

    Careful Rick isn't that name trademarked?

  10. mike from iowa 2014.01.15

    According to what I can figure out of SD codified law,if the guv asked the AG to hide evidence or lose it or whatever,in a criminal investigation,the guv could be guilty of criminal solicitation whether a crime actually occured or not? They really need to stop lawyers from writing rules ordinary people can't understand.

  11. Deb Geelsdottir/ 2014.01.15

    Geez. Makes the Roman Catholic Church sound saintly!

    You know, people express concern about folks losing contact with the American work ethic. I'm much, much more worried about the powerful people who've no sense of shame and no sense of identity with the rest of humanity. Those amoral people truly scare me. They are no different than the ghetto kid who shoots someone for their i-phone. Except they can destroy many more lives in one "shot."

  12. Roger Cornelius 2014.01.15

    On a recent Madville thread the subject of white privilege came up, when I read this article that was precisely my first thought.
    Jackley put the Native American children second to the admitted rapist and the abusive foster mother and than returned them to the house of pain. The rights and safety of the children were not only not protected, one could argue they were intentional placed in a situation where more abuse could be perpetuated against them.

    There should be prosecution of Jackley and his minions, but that is not likely is it?

    The head of the Department of Social Service and all those involved in the placement of these children bear culpability as well and should also be closely scrutinized.

    The Board of Regents recently suggested a position to recruit Native Americans students to South Dakota colleges and vocational schools, a noble act, but will Native students trust what the state is offering? Will those potential students smell the same big dirty rat I do?

    Native Americans don't trust the federal government and trust state government even less, the story Cory tells is only one of the many reasons why.

    Whenever I'm asked about Native American and state reconciliation my response is always the same, it starts with trust and grows from there. Trust is the foundation, if state politics that provide for criminal abuse of Native American children exist, the building can be built.

  13. Testor15 2014.01.15

    Don't forget the $50 million Children's Home Society gets to place these children. Let's see, who was a a major beneficiary of his work was head of CHS...

  14. David Newquist 2014.01.15

    The circumstances in which the DSS and judicial conspired to the detriment of the children and those who tried to protect them is deeply rooted in a set of codified laws which permit state and local agencies to hide information and records, which have standards that are blithely ignored, and which breeds systemic misfeasance. Although severe disciplinary action seems indicated in this matter, no further investigation into the conduct of the state's attorney office or law enforcement agents was made.

    South Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct expressly forbids any attorney from:

    (3) offer[ing] evidence that the lawyer knows to be false. If a lawyer, the lawyer's client, or a witness called by the lawyer, has offered material evidence and the lawyer comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall timely take reasonable remedial measures, including, if necessary, disclosure to the tribunal. A lawyer may refuse to offer evidence, other than the testimony of a defendant in a criminal matter, that the lawyer reasonably believes is false. However, in a criminal matter, the lawyer shall not participate with the client in the presentation of the client's testimony which the lawyer knows to be false.

    South Dakota Codified Law clearly states standards of evidence and testimony, the violation of which resulted in dismissal in this case, but has allowed the perps to strut away:

    16-18-15. Attorney not to maintain unjustified actions or defenses--Criminal defense excepted. It is the duty of an attorney and counselor at law to counsel or maintain no other actions, proceedings, or defenses than those which appear to him legal and just, except the defense of a person charged with a public offense.

    16-18-19. Attorney's duty to use truthful means. It is the duty of an attorney and counselor at law to employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to him, such means only as are consistent with truth, and never to seek to mislead the judges by any artifice or false statement of fact or law.
    Attorneys for the state are not excepted.

  15. Les 2014.01.15

    There are plenty of public servants of higher and lower levels who would make Ted look like a saint.
    DSS, Gina Score, children taken and given based upon the confused state of many social workers out to save the world when they haven't saved themselves. Indian children taken for larger foster profits than white babies. Can't buy a white baby out of a meth home. Can't buy a white baby with concussion abuse from his home.
    There are some great employees in our social services, God help them survive the political corruption that roils though their attempts to serve.
    I guess, probably better than the Orphan Trains of a hundred years prior.

  16. Deb Geelsdottir/ 2014.01.16

    Good comment Les.

    All the cutting of social services budgets in the state/fed House has real life consequences. Those good people in DHS are so massively overloaded with cases they have no time to investigate as they'd like to.

    The US and SD needs to put the money where the children are. Double the number of social workers and such tragic abuses would drop like a rock. SWs would love to have time to make certain that each child they work with is safe and happy.

    It's not the system and not the employees, with a few exceptions. It's the chiefly Republican slashers of children's budgets. Remember what I said earlier about "shamelessness"?

  17. CLCJM 2015.02.10

    The more I hear about this case, the more I want to hurl. Three things I can't wrap my brain around:
    How can the state politicians and bureaucrats get way with this stuff?
    Do these politicians and bureaucrats have no conscience at all?!?!
    How can voters not see these abuses? Are they issued blinders at birth that just filter all the evil out?
    I'm just sitting here in stunned horror and disbelief!!God help us, we are so close to Facism or the like that I it scares me to death!

  18. grudznick 2015.02.10

    We need an investigator of the investigators. Where is the Goca committee, or why isn't the LRC investigating these things? I see two answers: Goac and the LRC are in bed with the mess or there is no problem and you people are wearing one of Mr. Sibby's stepsister's tinfoil wigs.

Comments are closed.