Let’s start with a small one. Darned if this reporter can remember when Bill Napoli was Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. The National Public Radio reporting about Gov. Dennis Daugaard, foster care for American Indian children and Children’s Home Society, however, says Bill was. Mistakes happen.
On a bigger scale, the NPR reports charge that Children’s Home Society received no-bid contracts and “did not compete for the contracts or bid against any other organization.” Daugaard, who prior to being elected governor a year ago was chief executive for Children’s Home Society, including eight years while he served in the part-time role as lieutentant governor, issued a statement pointing out that the non-profit organization won the contracts through a process known as request for proposals — RFP — that is standard practice in state government in South Dakota for many contracts. No other organization submitted a proposal when the requests were made, according to Daugaard.
What the reporting by Laura Sullivan shows repeatedly is a lack of understanding about government operations. One premise of her reporting is that state government is making money by removing American Indian children from homes where there is evidence or accusations of neglect. Actually, placing the children in foster care directly costs the taxpayers of South Dakota, because the state must provide a partial match for the federal payments for foster care. Every dollar spent from the state treasury for foster care is a dollar that can’t be spent for Medicaid or school aid or hundreds of other potential uses. State government is providing the protection of foster care in instances where tribal governments aren’t.
As to the allegation there is bias against American Indian foster care providers — the NPR reporting says 90 percent of American Indian children in foster care in South Dakota aren’t placed with American Indian foster parents — there are two obvious answers. First, in terms of population statistics, having 90 percent of foster-care placements with non-Indian foster parents isn’t out of line, when roughly 90 percent of adults in South Dakota are non-Indian people. If there were more American Indian people willing and capable of qualifying as foster parents, more American Indian foster children would be placed with them. That American Indian children make up approximately half of the children in foster care, when they comprise about 15 percent of the general population, reflects many of the same problems that have led to a disproportionately higher percentage of American Indian people in the state and federal court systems and state and federal prisons.
Second, the American Indian population of South Dakota is scattered great distances, making foster placements more challenging. Which is better: Placing a child from northeastern South Dakota somewhere in southern or western South Dakota, so that child can be with American Indian foster parents, or placing that child with non-Indian foster parents in northeastern South Dakota, so that the child can remain among friends and relatives if possible? Therein rests the dilemma and the challenge.
The piece missing in the NPR series is what tribal governments are doing in South Dakota regarding this matter.
Last, it is worth noting that American Indian people in South Dakota enjoy dual citizenship. They enjoy the rights and hold the responsibilities as members of their respective tribes’ governments, and they enjoy the rights and hold the responsibilities as members of South Dakota’s state government. The State of South Dakota as created by the U.S. Congress overlays the tribal lands and reservations that likewise were designated by the U.S. Congress. How to make this system work effectively is a daily challenge. The conflict over American Indian foster children is but one part. People in the NPR series complain that state social workers are taking tribal children. The social workers will tell you they are acting to protect South Dakota children. Actually, what they’ll probably tell you is they’re trying to protect children, period.
What should be done next is appointment of a team of lawyers who can review the cases of every American Indian child currently in state government’s foster placement in South Dakota. The reviews should determine whether the Department of Social Services and state courts have complied with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act that strictly governs the processes and placements. A second team should be appointed to audit the work of the initial review team and to spot-check a random group of reviews for accuracy. It is apparent we need facts. From those facts can come findings and recommendations. If there are changes that we learn are needed in Social Services, they should be made. If there are changes that we learn are needed in tribal governments, they should be made. If there are changes that we learn are needed in state and tribal courts, they should be made.
As an addendum, it’s also intriguing that on Oct. 21, an organization based in Santa Cruz, California, issued a news release regarding the San Francisco-based reporter’s stories, which had yet to air. “Based on interviews and discussions, the Lakota Peoples Law Project is expecting Laura Sullivan’s award-winning investigative reporting to make some astonishing revelations in her series on the South Dakota Lakota Sioux on NPR on October 25 and 26 on All Things Considered and on October 27 on Morning Edition,” the release, posted on PR Newswire, stated. On the website for The Lakota People’s Law Project the NPR series also was promoted prominently in advance. On the same front page of the organization’s website is this statement: “Over 2,200 Lakota children need us to help them get out of State institutions and back to their relatives.” Last week, Daugaard likewise issued a pre-emptive background paper to South Dakota news organizations and reporters via his spokesman, Tony Venhuizen. In that document, Venhuizen stated, “Everyone who interacted with the NPR reporter commented that she came into her interviews with a clear bias and predetermined outcome, and she was not interested in contrary facts.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project’s top attorney is Daniel Sheehan, who is identified as president and general counsel for the Romero Institute, which is funding the project. According to his biography on the project’s website, “Sheehan has developed the strategy for and is leading The Lakota People’s Law Project civil suit against the State of South Dakota for its violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act.” The website also provides the biography for the project’s tribal liaison, Madonna Thunder Hawk, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She is identified as an original member of and spokesman for the American Indian Movement and a co-founder of Women of All Red Nations; the biography says she was featured in several documentary films including the recent PBS series We Shall Overcome.
The Lakota People’s Law Project team of advisers is also listed on the website. The three are former U.S. Sen. Jim Abourezk of South Dakota, tribal judge and University of North Dakota law school faculty member B.J. Jones and Donovin Sprague who is director of education at Crazy Horse Memorial.