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NPR Investigation Reveals How the Foster Care System Steals Indian Children From Their Families and Culture

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A year-long National Public Radio (NPR) investigation has found that nearly 700 Native children in South Dakota are being removed from their homes and placed in foster homes every year. In the state, Indian children account for 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half the children in foster care. And nearly 90 percent of fostered Native children in the state are placed in non-Native homes, according to NPR's analysis of state records.

The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1978, mandates that the state must make every effort to place Indian children with relatives or a tribal member. It also requires the state to first attempt to keep a family together with services and programs.

But NPR cites several Native adults who have acquired their Indian Child Welfare license, and foster homes are not sending them any Indian kids. Instead, the Native kids are being placed in non-Native homes.

Crow foster home provider Marcella Dion has plenty of room to care for Indian foster children. Her home has remained empty for six years, NPR reports.

"I've been a foster parent here for over a year," Suzanne Crow from Crow Creek in central South Dakota told NPR. "They've never called me for any Indian kids." A few months back, Crow inquired with a social worker why she hadn't received any Native foster children. "He said well there's a long process this and that," Crow recalled to NPR. "And I said, 'You know what? The long process is there's no road from you to Indian people. That's the long process.'"

Part I of NPR's three-part investigative series on Native foster children in South Dakota tells the heart-wrenching story of a Crow grandmother, Janice Howe, and her daughter Erin Yellow Robe. In 2009, Robe's one-year-old twin babies were taken away from her after she was accused of abusing prescription pills. Robe denies the allegations, and the Department of Social Services file "notes the case was based on a rumor—from a woman who, the source says, didn't like the Howe family," NPR reports. Robe has never been arrested for drugs—or anything else. "The social worker in this case, like many the department employs, hadn't been on the job long and quit a short time later," NPR reports.

Later, Robe's older daughters, 5-year-old Rashauna and 6-year-old Antoinette, originally placed with Howe, were taken away due to excessive contact with their mother, who still has no crime record. Howe has requested the social worker move her grandchildren to a Native home, where they could engage in cultural activities, like pow wows, sweats and sundance. Her pleas have gone unanswered.

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Several months later, in December 2009, Howe and Robe finally got to meet with the girls. Howe told NPR she missed braiding their long hair. Following Dakota tradition, they only cut their hair when there's a death in the family. Their hair had been chopped to their shoulders. NPR reports that they "begged Howe and their mother to take them home."

"I just kept saying, pray," Howe tells NPR she told the children, tears welling in her eyes. "Pray hard. Grandma's going to get you back. I don't know how but grandma's going to get you back. When you start feeling bad pray or look outside because we're both looking at the same sky. Ok? Ok, they said. And they left." Another year will pass before she gets to see them again.

According to federal law, Howe, or any of their other Indian relatives, should have gotten to keep the four children. But Indian Nations are sovereign, so federal and state laws do not apply, NPR reports, analyzing the complex legal system surrounding Indian children and foster care.

Read the overview of NPR's three-part series, "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families."

In related news, Daily Yonder blogger Mary Annette Pember, Ojibwe, compares foster care's "war on Indian culture" to the boarding school systems that rid Natives of their cultural identity in her post “Child of Love".

"In many ways, not much has really changed for us. We are still being blamed for being Indian," Pember writes. "I am grateful to NPR and the many advocates and tribal people who are working to bring attention to the draconian notion that every family in this country needs to be measured by the yardstick of white middle-America."

Through first-hand experience, Pember paints a greater picture of the damaging long-term effects of removing Indian children from their families and stripping them of their Indian-ness. "This notion has contributed to a still thriving intergenerational trauma for many Indian people," Pember writes. "Nearly every Indian family that I know has stories of family members being removed or adopted away. Those people often carry the shame that our ways are somehow unfit. Many, like my family, had parents who passed the pain forward until it became a nameless rage, taking form as enormous chips carried defiantly on our shoulders."