Two House Democrats today opened an investigation into the removal of Indian children from their families and placement in foster care, following revelations in a series by National Public Radio. The reports by the radio network reveal that Indian children in South Dakota are being questionably removed from their Native families at an alarming rate, in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law.
Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.) sent an investigative letter today to Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, expressing their alarm at the reports and asking for an assessment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on whether the state of South Dakota has broken federal laws. Rep. Markey is the Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian affairs, and Rep. Boren is the Ranking Member of the Committee's Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.
"If the information in the NPR article is accurate, it would appear that the State of South Dakota has failed not only to abide by the mandates of federal law but has also failed its Indian children, their families and their tribes by violating the letter and the spirit of the ICWA," write the two Democrats. "It is simply outrageous that Indian children are being placed in non-Indian homes or group care at an alarming rate -- upwards of 90 percent end up in non-Indian care -- and that South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states for what appears to be profit."
The ICWA was passed in 1978 to combat precisely the problem of states separating Indian children from their parents, families, and tribes through involuntary removal from Native American homes and involuntary termination of parental rights. The House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs - the predecessor of the present-day House Committee on Natural Resources - termed the disparity between foster care placement rates for Indian and non-Indians "shocking."
The ICWA specifically mandates that foster care placement of Indian children be with a member of the child's extended family; a foster home licensed, approved, or specified by the child's tribe; an Indian foster home licensed or approved by an authorized non-Indian licensing authority; or, an institution for children approved by an Indian tribe or operated by an Indian organization which has a program suitable to meet the child's needs. These preferences make it likely that Indian children will not be removed from an Indian environment.
"The NPR investigation found that while Indian children make up 15 percent of the child population in South Dakota, over half of the children in foster care administered by the State are Indian," continue the Democrats in the letter. "What is more, the State is removing 700 Indian children every year from their homes, sometimes under "questionable circumstances', and failing to place these children with their relatives or tribes as required under the ICWA."