Native children welfare bill passes South Dakota committee

February 6, 2023

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A bill aimed at placing Native American children with other relatives when they are taken from their families during abuse and neglect proceedings was approved in a South Dakota House committee Friday.

The measure, introduced by Democratic Rep. Peri Pourier, passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 9-3 vote and goes next to the full House for consideration.

According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, Native American children make up 60% of youth placed into the foster system in the state and, nationally, are in foster care at a rate nearly three times that of white children. The group attributes the disparities to systemic bias, historical trauma and high poverty and jobless rates.

Most instances of Native American children being removed from their homes are in negligence cases.

If it wins final approval, the South Dakota bill would require the Department of Social Services to act in culturally responsive and socially supportive ways in cases of removal involving Native American children and make every effort to keep them with other relatives.

This requirement for government agencies to keep children with their tribal relatives is also a included in the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in 1978 to address the disproportionately high number of Native American children being adopted from their families by non-Native ones.

Jessica Morson, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe’s Social Services Coordinator, said the measure addresses South Dakota’s complicated position of containing not only a state government but also nine tribal governments. She urged the state to consider equity and cultural differences when it handles custody proceedings for Native American children.

Advocates say that when abuse and neglect proceedings address root causes and maintain cultural connections for Native populations, the outcomes can heal families.

Myrna Thompson, former Sisseton-Whapeton Oyate tribal secretary, said two nephews, ages 8 years old and 10 months old, were taken long ago and it was 50 years before they were reunited with family.

Thompson said it is critically important that Child Protections Services and social workers do everything they can to reunite children with their tribe and relatives.

“Many never find their people,” she said. “They are lost. They have no culture to grab on to.”

Jeremy Lippert, Director of Legal Services of the South Dakota Department of Social Services testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that the Indian Child Welfare Act outlines a higher standard than what is required of other families under state or federal law.

That argument is at issue in the pending Supreme Court case Brackeen v. Haaland.

Pourier responded that while the South Dakoa bill has language included in the welfare act, it doesn’t directly reference the act itself.

“We’re talking about active efforts in preventing a child from being taken from the family home. We would like the state to provide active efforts in preventing termination of rights,” Pourier said.