In a historic moment, two Sioux tribes receive federal funds to build tribal foster care

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The Lakota People's Law Project worked in association with A Positive Tomorrow and the Sioux Tribes of South Dakota to bring Indian tribes closer to running their own independently run foster care systems.

Bryan Brewer, Tribal Council Chairman, Oglala Sioux (Pine Ridge)

“This is a significant victory for the Lakota people and for indigenous people across the United States and around the globe.” Chase Iron Eyes

Two tribes of the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota Indian Country have been awarded planning grants by the Department of Health and Human Services, marking a historic moment in the ongoing effort to stop the illegal State seizure of Lakota children by creating an independent tribal-run family services program administered for Lakota, by Lakota.

Both the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were awarded $300,000 planning grants by the United States Health and Human Services Agency, according to an HHS announcement released Friday, Oct. 3.

“This is a tremendous development,” said Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer. “ Credit goes first to all the tribes for our hard work, and second to A Positive Tomorrow, whose expertise in grant applications of this specific kind has been indispensable to this achievement, and finally to the Lakota People’s Law Project who has worked for years with us for this structural change.”

“Our children are sacred, and they are our future,” said Chase Iron Eyes, spokesperson from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and attorney for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “This is a significant victory for the Lakota people and for indigenous people across the United States and around the globe, and it marks the beginning of a major effort to build our tribal capacity so we can take care of our children and families.”

Jesse Taken Alive, former Chairman of Standing Rock said, “ We will be working on our constitutions, our customary laws and traditions, our Court system, our codes, our available buildings, our kinship and foster care networks, our educational access to Masters Degrees, our creation of these permanent jobs, and our trauma and parent training based on our own values. This effort will strengthen our families and build tribal capacity across our structures.”

Yvonne Ito of A Positive Tomorrow, who worked diligently with seven tribes to ensure the applications were high grade, joined Iron Eyes in expressing a sense of triumph while cautioning that much work remains. “We are pleased that these two tribes will embark on a journey of sovereignty, and we will continue to fight for the other five Sioux tribes to receive their planning grants as well.”

The Department of Health and Human Services gives five tribal planning grants per year, and this year they gave two in South Dakota, two in Alaska, and one in Arizona.

“I am committed to the tribes and to a working alliance with the Lakota People’s Law Project,” said Ito. “If we all continue to work together, all Lakota tribes will rise in this historic project with the People of the Seven Council Fires. There is a lot of work to be done and this latest benchmark only strengthens our resolve and determination to make sure it gets done successfully.”

The federal grants of $300,000 are distributed to each tribe by mid-October and will allow Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge, to begin planning and building capacity with a final goal of establishing foster care systems that will be run by the tribes independent of the state. Collective efforts will continue this month to achieve planning grants for the Yankton, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Flandreau, and Lower Brule Sioux tribes.

“It is crucial that we wrest control of our children’s future away from members of the state of South Dakota, who have proven over and over again that they do not have the best interests of our children and families at heart,” said Cheyenne River Grandmother Madonna Thunder Hawk. “ Our children are not cash cows for federal money coming into the state economy, they are sacred and precious beings, our most valuable resource.”

“The people best situated to care for our children are our own families and extended family network, which we call Tiospaye,” said Phyllis Young, Standing Rock Councilwoman and important initiator of the historic BIA Summit on Lakota Foster Care in 2013. “We have taken good care of our children for thousands of years. We have to heal from the trauma of the past 130 years and begin to build a positive future for our people.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) has been working on foster care issues relative to the Native American children of South Dakota since 2005, partnering with tribes and leaders in South Dakota.

The tribes have been prompted to run their own foster care institutions after a 2011 report by National Public Radio asserted that the South Dakota Department of Social Services repeatedly and persistently violates the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and receives roughly $65 million per year in federal money in the process. The federal money infusions for the South Dakota foster care program were detailed in Who’s Watching the Watchdog, a 2013 report by the Lakota People’s Law Project.

An average of 742 Native American children are removed from their homes in South Dakota on an annual basis, according to the United States Children' Bureau's "Child Welfare Outcomes: Reports to Congress." When controlling for the factor of poverty, South Dakota still ranks third in the nation for the highest number of children taken into custody by the Department of Social Services, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform's "2010 NCCPR Rate of Removal Index." This is true even though the state has a total population of only 844,000.

While Native American children constitute 13.5 percent of the child population in South Dakota, they comprise 54 percent of the youth foster care population, according to the Child Welfare Outcomes compiled by the Children's Bureau. South Dakota has allegedly continued to ignore stipulations in ICWA that mandate placement of Native American children in Native American homes, placing about 87 percent of Native children in non-Native homes, according to data provided by the South Dakota DSS to LPLP in an email in 2011.

“The state of South Dakota operates under a perverse incentive, where they actually stand to gain additional federal funding for their social services programs by taking Native kids from their homes and placing them in state-run foster care services,” said Sara Nelson of the Lakota People’s Law Project. “Most of the group homes are now psychiatric institutions, because they can charge the federal government three times as much per day.”

This crisis prompted LPLP, after much grassroots research and legal analysis, to begin advocating a solution that entailed the tribes running their own independent and autonomous family services programs that include foster care homes.

“We were happy to see that Governor Daugaard has now endorsed the shifting of the federal money from the State to the tribes for foster care”, said Yankton Sioux Tribe Officer Sam Sully, referring to an announcement in the Argus Leader last year. “We are pushing forward to ask three Washington, D.C. agencies for our planning grant too.”

The two announced grants will arrive in mid October when the tribes will proceed immediately to hire qualified Planning Coordinators.

The planning grant applications were submitted for funding under the terms of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, commonly referred to as the Baucus Act. The law introduced major changes to the Social Security Act, primarily in Section IV-E, regarding foster care and adoptions assistance payments to the states.

The Planning Grant program under the Baucus Act can award individual planning grants up to $300,000 to American Indian tribes and has a total annual budget of $3 million. Usually $1.5 million in grants, or 5 grants, are given each year. According to the Tribal Directory of the Bureau of Indian Affairs there are 566 federally recognized tribes. At this rate, the process could take upwards of 100 years.

In total, eight out of the nine Lakota tribes in South Dakota have already received or applied for the grants. Five are asking for further review in Washington, D.C.

The Lakota People’s Law Project has been partnering with tribes and leaders in South Dakota since 2005 from its offices in Rapid City, SD and Santa Cruz, CA. LPLP’s activities have included funding and supporting Native experts to provide technical assistance to the tribes on family and child welfare issues. The project combines public interest law, investigation, research, education, and organizing into a unique model for advocacy and social reform.

The Lakota People's Law Project is sponsored by the non-profit Romero Institute based in Santa Cruz, California. The Institute is named after slain human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The Institute seeks to identify and dismantle structural sources of injustice and threats to the survival of our human family.

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Matthew Renda

Sara Nelson
Lakota People's Law Project
since: 02/2010
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