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Indian Child Welfare Act under discussion

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - The second of many meetings to study whether or not the
state is in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act brought ideas
forward that will be discussed in the next few months.

The governor's commission was formed to investigate allegations that the
state Department of Social Services and lower government entities were not
in compliance with ICWA, creating frustration for American Indian families
and emotional problems for children who were separated from their culture
illegally.

In the past legislative session, a bill was introduced that would require
the state to comply with the federal act was sidetracked by the governor's
office. A compromise was reached that created a commission that would
return a finding by December.

Two meetings have been held and a series of listening sessions are
scheduled to take place on at least seven of the nine reservations and in
two urban areas in the state.

The second meeting featured many tribal officials and people involved with
ICWA speaking to the commission. The agenda was not set to deal with a lot
of public input, but it was accommodated.

"It was a good meeting. It identified some problems areas," said Vernon
"Ike" Schmidt, with the Casey Family Program and coordinator of a coalition
on ICWA.

Dianne Garreau, Cheyenne River ICWA director, said she was pleased with the
commission so far and, "I feel good that this will overcome some barriers.
The tribal participation was wonderful. This was a long time coming and it
is coming our way which is in the best interest of the child," she said.

The 28 members of the commission are predominantly non-Indian, but tribal
members and officials sit on the panel. Garreau said the tribal members are
vocal.

The tribes are working together to solve the problem of placing American
Indian children in foster care without consideration of the federal act.

The early stages of the commission hearings are not designed to hear
individual cases, but to determine if the state does not comply with
federal law.

In order to determine to what extent if any the state has not complied with
ICWA, records from the state and some tribes will be researched for 2003.
It is estimated that more than 60 percent of all children in the social
service system are American Indian.

There is much confusion over jurisdiction from tribal courts, whether or
not extended family members are eligible to care for children and who in
the tribe should be notified about a child.

Sometimes chairmen get the notice, and it does not get attention, tribal
members said.

Janine Kern, state circuit judge in Rapid City, S.D. is chair of the
commission. She said the commission will work hard to come up with a
solution.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
the Dakotas, said there are some people who want to play nice and some who
want to play hardball with the issue. She said there is a certain amount of
will to see that a change is made and there is skepticism about any follow
up to the commission's conclusion.

For a thorough study, the tribes need to open court records. All but two
tribes have agreed to open records.

A number of the tribes have problems with open records; the tribes do not
have to comply with ICWA and usually have methods of dealing with children
that involve extended families or other methods that will not comply with
state criteria.

The commission is seeking volunteer attorneys and six have already come
forward. The attorneys will devise a single method by which to evaluate
compliance by the state, counties and other entities.

The commission will also organize a focus group and a compliance group made
of stake holders, which will be separate from the listening groups that
will travel to the reservations.

At the commission hearing on Aug. 10, Department of Social Service
officials stated there were 744 licensed foster homes in the state, of that
number there were 69 American Indian homes. In January, during testimony
before a legislative committee, the state said there were two American
Indian foster families licensed.

The determination by the court system is that the tribes should intervene
in every child custody case even if the tribe or a family is not seeking
custody or jurisdiction. The tribe can act as the custodian and ask for a
transfer to tribal court.

The next round of meetings by the commission will take place in September
on the reservations.