Derrin Yellow Robe, 3, stands in his great-grandparents' backyard on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Along with his twin sister and two older sisters, he was taken off the reservation by South Dakota's Department of Social Services in July 2009 and spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family.
Derrin Yellow Robe, 3, stands in his great-grandparents' backyard on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Along with his twin sister and two older sisters, he was taken off the reservation by South Dakota's Department of Social Services in July 2009 and spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family. John Poole/NPR
Overview of a three-part investigation
Nearly 700 Native American children in South Dakota are being removed from their homes every year, sometimes under questionable circumstances. An NPR News investigation has found that the state is largely failing to place them according to the law. The vast majority of native kids in foster care in South Dakota are in nonnative homes or group homes, according to an NPR analysis of state records.
Years ago, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where the motto of the schools' founder was "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." Children lost touch with their culture, traditions and families. Many suffered horrible abuse, leaving entire generations missing from the one place whose future depended on them — their tribes.
In 1978, Congress tried to put a stop to it. They passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which says except in the rarest circumstances, Native American children must be placed with their relatives or tribes. It also says states must do everything it can to keep native families together.
But 32 states are failing to abide by the act in one way or another, and, an NPR investigation has found, nowhere is that more apparent than in South Dakota.
"Cousins are disappearing; family members are disappearing," said Peter Lengkeek, a Crow Creek Tribal Council member. "It's kidnapping. That's how we see it."
State officials say they have to do what's in the best interest of the child, but the state does have a financial incentive to remove the children. The state receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every child it takes from a family, and in some cases the state gets even more money if the child is Native American. The result is that South Dakota is now removing children at a rate higher than the vast majority of other states in the country.
Native American families feel the brunt of this. Their children make up less than 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half of the children in foster care.
Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids. Among them is Children's Home Society, the state's largest foster care provider, which has close ties with top government officials. It used to be run by South Dakota's Gov. Dennis Daugard. An NPR investigation has found that Daugard was on the group's payroll while he was lieutenant governor — and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. It's an unusual relationship highlighting the powerful role money and politics play in South Dakota's foster care system.
"They make a living off of our children," said Juanita Sherick, the tribal social worker for the Pine Ridge reservation.
Some children are removed from their homes for legitimate reasons. But in South Dakota very few are taken because they've been physically or sexually abused. Most are taken under a far more subjective set of circumstances. The state says the parents are neglectful. But NPR's investigation shows that even Native American children who grow up to become foster care success stories, living happy, productive lives, say the loss of their culture and identities leaves a deep hole they spend years trying hopelessly to fill.
Read the complete first part of our yearlong investigation here.