SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s been nearly 20 years since the state of South Dakota and the nine tribal nations came together to work to better the welfare of Native American children in the state.

In 2004, the South Dakota legislature passed a series of bills to address the state’s compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and look at ways tribal nations and the state could work together to improve outcomes for Native youth. The passage of Senate Bill 211 that year created the Governor’s Commission on the Indian Child Welfare Act through then-Governor Mike Rounds Office.

ICWA was authored by former United States Senator James Abourezk in 1978, who died this past February, to prevent the removal of Native children from their families and culture. At the time, Native children were being forcibly removed from their families and reservations and assimilated into boarding schools and placed with white families. The legislation aims to keep Native children within their extended family through kinship placements if they’re removed from their home and placed into the care of the state.

“We know there is a long history of policies to remove our children from our communities, from our families, to tear our families apart,” Oglala Sioux Tribe Vice President Alicia Mousseau told KELOLAND News. 

Rounds’ commission to look at ICWA resulted in 30 recommendations that were presented to the legislature in 2005. House Bill 1226 and Senate Bill 12 were signed into law in 2005 to create provisions relating to the custody and placement of Native children and creating preference for placement of abused and neglected children with relatives. In 2006, House Bill 1051 revised certain provisions regarding the notice to a tribe of child custody proceedings subject to ICWA.

But since then, little has been done to implement the rest of the commission’s recommendations or address the disproportionate rates of Native children in the foster care system, which have remained largely unchanged since 2004.

“Only a few of those recommendations were put into law,” Mousseau said. 

Democratic Senator Red Dawn Foster brought Senate Bill 191 to the legislature this session in hopes of picking up where the previous commission left off nearly two decades ago. The bill would have created a similar interim task force to “address the welfare of Indian children in South Dakota” by bringing together representatives from all nine tribal nations, the Department of Social Services (DSS), the state court system and lawmakers from the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Wednesday, the bill died in the House due to issues with the bills mechanics Republican representatives said they couldn’t get past.

Keeping families together

One of the commission’s recommendations implemented by the legislature was to address kinship placements. Kinship placements refers to keeping children with relatives, which Mousseau said can minimize the trauma experienced by the child.

Following the implementation of preference for kinship placements, DSS found that there was an increase of 25% of such placements for all children between July of 2004 and June of 2005.

According to data requested by Foster, there are still large gaps of the number of children, Native and non-Native, that are placed with relatives.

During the session, Democratic Representative Peri Pourier introduced House Bill 1229 to address such placements. The bill died in the House Judiciary committee.

Mousseau said that kinship placements are important to the long-term wellbeing of children, especially when it comes to delinquency and recidivism.

“It is a practice in social work that has been shown to have amazing effects,” Mousseau said. “And we wanted all the children of South Dakota to have the opportunity to be placed with their relatives. That didn’t even make it out of committee.”

From poverty to prison

Data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect shows that in 2020, 95% of Native children affected by maltreatment were experiencing neglect compared to 86% of their non-Native peers. The data also showed that Native children face higher rates of abandonment and parents with substance abuse issues.

“Being born and raised in one of the most poorest counties in the United States, I can tell you that neglect looks a lot like poverty,” Pourier told House lawmakers on Wednesday.

South Dakota is home to some of the poorest counties in the country, many of which are on tribal land.

Pourier and Mousseau say the impact of poverty and neglect in childhood connect directly to crime and the overflowing prisons in South Dakota.

“South Dakota is funding more prisons because there’s a need but we go further upstream, there’s that need because of policies to remove children that dates back, which is why ICWA came into effect in 1978 and it has been in effect since,” Mousseau said.

As of January 31, 2023, Native American women outnumbered women of other races in South Dakota’s prisons. Additionally, nearly 33% of the male inmates in state prisons are Native American.

Mousseau said addressing the disproportionate rates of Native children in foster care, specifically those not placed with kin, can better address issues of crime and substance abuse.

“As you can imagine being removed from your family and being placed outside of your family, which a lot of Indian children are, that’s traumatic. That has dramatic effects on somebody who has to experience it and their children, right, their brains are still developing there,” Mousseau explained. “And we know from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that, you know, those early traumatic experiences in children’s lives leads to negative health outcomes, run ins with the law, you know, substance use. Look up the ACEs study, that that has been foundational.”

The Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) study found that compared to other races, American Indian and Alaska Native children experience adverse events at a higher rate than their peers.

Mousseau and the Oglala Sioux Tribe are also concerned with the termination of parental rights that they say impacts Native families at higher rates. Data from DSS shows that Native children make up the majority of cases where the parental rights are terminated.

Another year of inaction

With the killing of three bills to address ICWA and the welfare of Native children and families, the nine tribes of South Dakota will have to wait until next legislative session to address the problem. Democratic Representative Oren Lesmeister tried to urge lawmakers to pass the bill this week to prevent that from happening.

“If we wait another year before we do this then it’s next year before we do this, which then relates into how long after that before this committee could be implemented,” Lesmeister said. 

Republican Representative Scott Odenbach also gave his public support to the bill saying that it’s time to address the issue.

“We’ve basically heard unanimity from Indian Country that they want to have some action and something to be done on this,” Odenbach said.

Mousseau said the tribes are ready to come to the table to start acting on this issue, but the state is not showing up.

“So, we’re gonna have to figure out how to how to continue to, you know, open up communication and work together,” Mosseau said. “And also, United States needs to fulfill their treaty and trust responsibility as well.”