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Native American Tribes Win Child Welfare Case In South Dakota


In South Dakota, Native American children who enter foster care routinely end up living with families that are white. NPR first reported on this problem three years ago. Tribes say the practice tears apart their communities. Two of South Dakota's largest tribes filed a class-action lawsuit to try to keep those children with their relatives and tribes. And NPR's Laura Sullivan reports that they won a sweeping victory last night, which could have implications nationwide.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed 37 years ago to keep native families and tribes together. It mandates that the state place native children with their relatives or tribes if they have to be removed from their parents, but in South Dakota that hasn't always happened. More than 80 percent of native children are placed in white foster homes. One of the biggest complaints of native families who lost children is that they were never allowed to present their side. A federal court now agrees with them. The court found that native children were removed from their parents after short hearings - some that lasted less than 60 seconds - where they weren't allowed to speak or even find out why their children were being removed.

STEVEN PEVAR: In the past four years alone, hundreds of Indian children have been forcibly removed from their homes and then been subjected to these judicial hearings.

SULLIVAN: Steven Pevar, a staff attorney with the ACLU, brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud tribes.

PEVAR: It's no wonder that DSS, the social services, won 100 percent of those hearings. All the cards were stacked in their favor.

SULLIVAN: Federal court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken found that state judges, prosecutors and the Department of Social Services, quote, "failed to protect Indian parents' fundamental rights." He wrote Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better.

South Dakota state officials declined to comment other than to say that they do not comment on pending litigation.

ADDIE SMITH: And it sets up a roadmap for other areas in the country where we know there's this much disregard for the laws and the rights of parents and tribes.

SULLIVAN: Abbie Smith is the government affairs associate for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, and she says the ruling will change the way courts nationwide treat these cases. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly identify the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s government affairs associate as Abbie Smith. She is Addie Smith.]

SMITH: I take literally thousands of phone calls a year from parents, tribes, grandmas and aunties who describe to me court hearings that sound as if they are lifted out of the transcripts that were included in the complaint in this case.

SULLIVAN: Chase Iron Eyes is a staff attorney with the Lakota People's Law Project, which has been fighting this issue in the state for ten years. He said grandmothers and relatives who were denied custody of their grandchildren feel vindicated.

CHASE IRON EYES: We have a right to the control and well-being and development of our children. Our basic existence depends on them.

SULLIVAN: Pevar, with the ACLU, says the tribes will work with the Justice Department and the courts to develop guidelines for South Dakota and other states as well. He says they will take up a final piece of the lawsuit - the Department of Social Services and its training of employees - next. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.