Imagine having social workers show up to your home to take your twin babies because someone spread an unsubstantiated rumor that you were abusing prescription drugs. Two months later, your two young daughters don't come home on the bus, and later you learn they were taken from school and put in foster care. Yeah, this happened.
That's what Erin Yellow Robe claims happened to her several years ago, and a major investigation by NPR has revealed that there are many more Native Americans who say their children are being illegally taken from them. The situation is particularly troubling in South Dakota, where 700 Native American children are removed from their homes per year. Both the state's reasons for taking the children, and the way they place them with foster families, are questionable.
The situation is particularly disturbing because it's reminiscent of the late 19th and early 20th century policy of forcing Native American children to attend boarding schools in an effort to make them assimilate. In 1978 Congress passed a law that was intended to prevent Native Americans from being separated from their families and cultures. The law states that with a few rare exceptions, Native American children are to be placed with relatives, a member of their tribe, or at least another Native American family. In its year-long investigation, NPR found that 32 states are failing to meet this requirement. In South Dakota, about 90% of children put into foster care wind up in non-native homes or group care, even though there are people in their own communities that want them and Native American foster parents with no children.
While some children are being removed from their homes because their parents really are abusive, NPR found that less than 12% of Native American children in South Dakota's foster care system were being physically or sexually abuse. Instead the bulk of the removals are for neglect, which is a more subjective crime. Yellow Robe's children were in foster care for a year and a half, and she only got them back because the Crow Creek tribal council threatened to sue the state when it learned the children were going to be put up for adoption. Yellow Robe was never charged with a crime and the state never proved that the rumors of her drug abuse had any merit.
Less than 15% of South Dakota's children are Native Americans, but they account for half of all the children in foster care. State officials say that's because poverty and substance abuse rates are higher in native communities, and insist they're only doing what's right for the children. Virgena Wieseler of South Dakota's Department of Social Services says:
"We come from a stance of safety ... That's our overarching goal with all children. If they can be returned to their parent or returned to a relative and be safe and that safety can be managed, then that's our goal."
However, many believe that money is the real motivation. States receive thousands in federal funding for every child removed from their home, and they get even more for Native American children. A former governor admitted that since the state is poor, federal money for social services is "incredibly important."
Naturally, many foster parents were angered by NPR's story, and commented that child services officials can't tell their side of the story due to privacy laws. The accusation that Native American children are essentially being kidnapped is sickening, and hopefully the report will prompt an investigation whether states are upholding the law as best they can, or continuing a long history of crimes committed against Native Americans.
Image via Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock.