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ICWA hearings turn emotional

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - A series of listening sessions by the Governor's
Commission on the Indian Child Welfare Act found the heat turned up on
emotions, frustration and anger as witness after witness asked that their
children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews be returned home.

"You take out children out of our lands by usurping our laws. It is like a
military action, it's a form of assimilation so that we will forget the
treaties," said Cornell Conroy, a member of the Brave Heart Society. "The
Brave Heart Society is to protect the children. The U.S. government
abrogated our right to protect our children."

He told the commissioners that, when a child is born into a Lakota family
the child is taken outside in full view of a rising sun where prayers are
said.

"God you gave me this child, I thank you. I will be responsible, not with a
whip, but with reasoning. That is the prayer," he said. "You have a total
disregard for our way of life. Our children are looked at like dollar
signs. You beat the Indian out of the child. We must be given the right to
exist our way," Conroy said.

At a recent meeting of the governor's ICWA commission Conroy set the tone
that would continue throughout the day in two locations.

The charge to the commission is to submit a report at the end of the year
so the state legislature can decide what action to take.

The state's Department of Social Services has frequently come under strong
criticism from the American Indian community over its treatment of American
Indian children without regard, as the critics argue, to the federal ICWA
laws.

"We will go to every reservation for a listening session to find out how we
are not in compliance," said Janine Kern, South Dakota Circuit Court Judge,
and co-chairwoman of the commission.

Testimony before other legislative committees has taken on much the same
emotional tenor with anecdotal information from families present at the
listening sessions. Complaints that ICWA was ignored are supported with
testimony about lack of contact with the tribes or with extended family
members when placement of a child is in question.

A bill introduced in the 2004 legislature that would strengthen the federal
ICWA law in the state was sidetracked by the governor and instead the study
commission was formed.

An independent research group is also in the process of searching through
court and DSS case files selected at random to assess compliance with the
federal law.

One of the most asked questions is why extended and nuclear family rights
are terminated when parental rights are terminated. No answer to that
question was available at the listening sessions. A reminder from those
testifying is that in the Lakota culture the extended family is very
important to the children's future. Questioned was why the grandparents or
aunts and uncles of a child also lost rights to see the child after the
parental rights were terminated.

Some parental rights were terminated even after the parent completed court
ordered alcohol treatment and parenting classes, and in some cases in
excess of what was required.

Monica Titus told the commission that when her son was taken away from her,
her mother applied to take the child, but when Titus' rights were
terminated, so were the grandmother's. Titus' mother is a licensed foster
mother, has children under her care and was willing take her grandson,
Titus said.

Oglala Tribal President John Steele told the commission that the tribe,
with a new charter would take charge of child welfare on the reservation.
The new program will not be connected to the tribal government.

"The state hires some of us and then they made us resign. There are a lot
of non-Indians that work in the system. White social workers can't put
themselves in our moccasins. They don't know how our families work. We can
handle our own kids," he said.

When the DSS holds an interview with a family they may find two or three
families living in one home; children may be sleeping on mattresses on the
floor, boys and girls together. That's how it is in the Oglala culture,
Steele and others said.

"We need 4,000 new homes to meet the backlog." He said that with a younger
population, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 21, and there
will be more need for homes.

The ICWA bill introduced in the state legislature in 2004 was supported by
all nine tribal chairmen. The tribal leadership worked hard to have the
bill implemented.

"It would be worth saving one child that is sent to the system, but we are
talking about a lot of children," Steele said.

When American Indian youths are placed with non-Indian foster families,
trauma sets in and eventually anger, and bad behavior, many people
testified. Some spoke of abuse and neglect of the children at the hands of
the foster parents.

James Ellenbecker, secretary for the Department of Social Services,
attended the listening sessions. He said some of the children who were put
in foster families were damaged before they arrived. He also admitted that
more training for the social workers would be helpful.

"It is good the Oglala Sioux Tribe will have the charter. We want to work
with the tribes. It's good if they have their own welfare system," said
Ellenbecker

Nancy Fleming, a former childcare worker for the state said it was an
all-white system and in a position of power the people may go too far.
"Everything should happen at the tribal level," she said.

One story about a 3-year-old boy, who was taken into custody after his
father was arrested for a DUI, explained the trauma children experience.
The father was released, but the child stayed in the hands of child
welfare. The grandmother said she fought all weekend to have the child
returned. She had to undergo an inspection of her home and a background
check.

"When I saw my grandson he ran from the DSS worker into my arms, he was
scared," she said.

Later the young boy was riding in the car to Rapid City with his two older
sisters and told them to not move, because a policeman would take them
away.