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:
- Brandon Taliaferro was assistant state's attorney for Brown County.
- Shirley Schwab was a court-appointed child advocate.
- Taliaferro and Schwab were advocates for the American Indian foster children of Richard and Gwendolyn ("Wendy") Mette, a white couple from Aberdeen.
- Richard Mette faced 23 charges of sexually abusing his foster children. In March 2012, he pled guilty to one count of rape.
- Wendy Mette faced 11 charges of child abuse. In April 2012, the state dropped all charges against her.
- 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.
- 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?
...in 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.