SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Since the beginning of March, four of South Dakota’s nine tribes have condemned the inaction of the South Dakota House of Representatives to address the welfare of Native American children.

This week, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe joined the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in calling out the House’s decision to kill Senate Bill 191 last week. The bill would have established a task force to study and find solutions to address the disproportionate number of Native children in South Dakota’s foster care system.

“…Unfortunately to this day, it’s disheartening to say that not much has changed when we have dysfunctional systems in place that are not conducive to the well-being of a Native child and continues to displace them from their homes,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Ryman LeBeau wrote.

Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Chairman Clyde Estes expressed concern with the discussion preceding the vote to kill the bill last week.

“One of the most disturbing comments I heard while listening to testimony was a statement by a SD legislator referencing the amount of money it would cost to create the task force,” Estes said.

Republican lawmakers said that they didn’t oppose the idea at the center of the bill, but rather the cost and the mechanics of it.

“Our legislature has a limited budget for doing summer studies, interim committees,” Republican Representative Tony Venhuizen said on the House floor last week. “Even with the amendment this study proposes to meet eight times in the next year. That’s more than double what most interim studies meet.”

Venhuizen went on to say that he had a problem with the legislature funding the interim task force when only four of the 17 members would be lawmakers.

“But we’re paying for it, we’re staffing it and, again, it would be meeting at least twice as much as a normal committee,” Venhuizen said.

In his statement, Estes took issue with that comment.

“To me, it says that our sacred wakanyeja (children) are NOT worth any amount of money except when it comes to placement of our Native children within the Department of Social Services custody for caregivers or placement centers,” Estes said.

LeBeau wants the legislature to look again at the issue instead of focusing on how much the task force may cost.

“…Ask yourself what does the life of a child cost to you, because this is what is at stake if we do not work together to find long-term positive solutions,” LeBeau said.

The welfare of Native children

Data obtained from the South Dakota Department of Social Services shows that between 2019 and 2022, Native children were anywhere from 49-60% of all foster care placements. Native children were also involved in the majority of cases where parental rights were terminated.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe concerning the removal of Native children in Pennington County. The case featured three Native parents who lost their children to the state.

In 2015, Chief Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey Viken validated claims that the state was removing children from their homes and then, when they appeared in court for the 48-hour hearing, the families often did not have legal representation or access to documents that should have been provided to them by the state, nor were they given the opportunity to testify or call witnesses on their behalf. The hearings lasted anywhere from 60 seconds to five minutes before a ruling was reached in the state’s favor.

“DSS claims that if a parent did not receive the ICWA affidavit, it was an oversight and not an intentional decision by the children protection staff,” the court documents read.

A year later, Viken issued a decision stating that the defendants (Pennington County and state officials) “continue to disregard this court’s March 30, 2015, partial summary judgment order” and that they continue to “refuse to reform their violative policies and procedures.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, authored by former South Dakota Senator Jim Abourezk, provided protections for Native families in custody cases. For more than 40 years, that policy has informed how states and tribes navigate custody issues involving Native children.

That law is now being heard before the Supreme Court where it could potentially be overturned. That’s another reason why Venhuizen, and other South Dakota lawmakers, were hesitant to act on SB 191 this session.

“As has been mentioned, this matter is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court right now. That opinion will come down by June,” Venhuizen said. “I’m not sure that this is the right time to be reconsidering our state laws when we don’t know what that ruling will tell us or where it will lead.”

The last time action was taken on this issue was in 2004 with then-Governor Mike Rounds ICWA task force. The committee met multiple times and came up with 30 recommendations to be implemented to improve the welfare of children in the state’s system.

Only a few of the recommendations were put in place.