Mass confiscation of Native American children hasn't gone away


AMERICA:In South Dakota, 700 Native American children a year are taken from their families. Federal funding for foster care is the incentive behind the practice

ONE NIGHT in 2009, a social worker telephoned Janice Howe, a Native American in South Dakota, to tell her that her grandchildren would be taken away because Howe’s daughter, Erin Yellow Robe, was about to be arrested for drug use.

Howe was stunned. She had never seen any sign of a drug problem. But the next morning, a social worker arrived to take Yellow Robe’s year-old twin babies.

“They were sitting in the car,” Howe told National Public Radio in a three-part investigative report on the virtual abduction of American Indian children by authorities in South Dakota which was broadcast this week. “They were just looking at me. Because you know most babies don’t cry if they’re raised in a secure environment.

“So I went out there and took their diaper bags. And they left.” White officials have been wresting Indian children from their families since the late 19th century. For a hundred years, the children were lodged in boarding schools where they were often mistreated and abused. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” ran the schools’ motto.

Poverty, alcoholism and crime remain serious problems on US Indian reservations. Families are large, but closely knit. And they struggle to preserve tradition. Prejudice against Native Americans is deeply instilled; the Declaration of Independence refers to them as “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages”. US government studies in 1969 and 1974 found that up to 35 per cent of all Native American children were separated from their families and put in institutions, foster or adoptive homes. In 1978, then president Jimmy Carter signed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which established federal standards to protect the children. The Act specifies that every attempt must be made to place children with relatives, within their tribe or at the very least, with other Native Americans.

But the legislation has not been enforced in South Dakota, where only a handful of the 700 Native American children taken annually from their families are placed in Indian homes. NPR found evidence that dozens of Indian families who asked to receive foster children were denied custody. Although Native American children comprise less than 15 per cent of the child population in South Dakota, they make up more than half the children in foster care.

On that day in 2009 when her twin babies were taken, Erin Yellow Robe and her mother Janice Howe sat on the steps and cried. They wondered why the social worker left Yellow Robe’s older daughters, Rashauna, then 5, and Antoinette, 6.

The police never came for Yellow Robe. NPR learned from a source who had access to the file that there was merely a rumour, started by someone who didn’t like the family, that Yellow Robe abused prescription medication.

Two months after the babies were taken, a social worker took Rashauna and Antoinette from school, without telling their mother and grandmother. Howe waited for them at the school bus stop that day, in vain. The Department of Social Services would not tell her anything. The state government did not answer her letters. When she appealed to the Indian child welfare director, he told her there was nothing he could do. In desperation, Howe asked the social worker to at least place her grandchildren with Native Americans, so they could learn rituals like the ceremonial sauna called “sweats” and the religious sun dance. Nothing happened.

Months passed before Howe and Yellow Robe were allowed to visit the girls. Howe was upset to see that the girls’ long black hair, which she loved plaiting, had been cut – a rite which usually marks death in a Dakota Indian family. The girls were thin and begged to go home. “Pray hard,” Howe told the girls. “Grandma’s going to get you back. I don’t know how, but grandma’s going to get you back. When you start feeling bad, pray or look outside because we’re both looking at the same sky.”

When the state put Yellow Robe’s four children up for adoption, Howe went to her tribe’s council, which passed an unprecedented resolution warning the state government that if the children were not returned, the tribe would press charges against the state government for kidnapping. A few weeks later, 18 months after the twins had been taken, a car delivered all four children to Howe’s home, without explanation or apology, and with the warning that they could be taken again at any time.

Howe told NPR that the twin babies appeared to have been well treated, but the girls had lost a dress size and were traumatised. When Rashauna wet her pants, Antoinette said, their foster parents forced her to wear the wet pants on her head. The girls hoard food and hide when a car pulls up. Like their mother, they are afraid of white people.

Money is the incentive behind the mass confiscation of American Indian children. A poor state, South Dakota receives $100 million a year from the federal government for the care of foster children. When children are moved from foster care to adoption, the state receives a $4,000 bonus, which is tripled if the child has “special needs”. South Dakota 10 years ago designated all Indian children “special needs”.

A private group called Children’s Home Society now has a near monopoly on the foster care business in South Dakota. It vets foster homes, trains case workers and foster parents, and examines children alleged to have been abused.

Before he became governor of South Dakota in January this year, Dennis Dugaard was paid $115,000 a year as executive director of Children’s Home Society. He served as lieutenant governor of the state through the same years, during which the society took in more than $50 million in federal funding. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington group denounced the set-up as “a massive conflict of interest”.

One month ago, both houses of Congress passed the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act. It promises to maintain federal funding for states like South Dakota, if only they will reduce the number of children in foster care.