SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — President Barack Obama's top official on tribal issues was expected to attend a summit this week in South Dakota aimed at sorting out allegations that the state regularly violates federal law by removing American Indian children from their homes and placing them in foster care with non-Indian families.
Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, planned to meet with leaders from South Dakota's nine Indian tribes for the three-day summit starting Wednesday in Rapid City.
The summit was called in response to charges that South Dakota breaks the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires that Native American children removed from homes must be placed with relatives or put in foster care with other Native American families except in unusual circumstances.
The goal is to "let Congress know about our long-term intent to fix the situation," said Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who helped coordinate the summit's agenda. "At the end of the road, we should be administering our own childcare services to our kids."
Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal council member, said she hopes the summit brings awareness to what is happening and to question the standards set for accessing federal money.
"And why it doesn't come directly to Indian tribes as opposed to the state getting the money for Indian children," she added.
The summit has been two years in the making and was first brought up following a three-part report by National Public Radio in 2011. The report, which was based on an analysis of state records, said a disproportionate number of Native American children removed from their homes in South Dakota each year are sent to foster care in non-Indian homes or group homes. The report also claimed that Native American children are placed in South Dakota's foster care system at a disproportionate rate.
State officials have called the NPR stories inaccurate, unfair and biased. However, they acknowledged a disproportionate number of Native American children are involved in the child welfare system because the state receives more referrals for alleged abuse and neglect involving them.
Following the report, six congressmen – including Democrats and Republicans – asked the Department of Interior to investigate the alleged violations made in the NPR report and find out what the Bureau of Indian Affairs intended to do if the violations were found to be true.
The BIA said it was planning a summit to address the allegations but due to various issues, including the resignation of Washburn's predecessor, it never occurred last year.
Kristin Kellar, spokeswoman for the South Dakota Department of Social Services, said the federal government only notified the agency last week, so DSS officials will not be attending the summit.
Kellar said children can only be removed by a law enforcement officer or through a court order when there is a concern over the safety of a child. She said the agency fully complies with ICWA.
"When finding placements for children, DSS first looks to relative and kinship options," she said in an email. "Included in this effort are staff members who locate relatives as their main job responsibility."
Federal officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Justice, tribal and state judges and representatives from tribes in South Dakota Oklahoma, Washington and Minnesota also were expected to attend.
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