Improving Foster Care For Native American Kids

Guests

Dwayne Stenstrom, spent 12 years in foster care
Laura Sullivan, investigative correspondent, NPR
Terry Cross, director, National Indian Child Welfare Association

An average of 700 Native American children in South Dakota are removed from their homes and placed in foster care each year, often in violation of federal law, an NPR investigation found. Native American children make up less than 15 percent of the state's child population, but represent more than half of kids in foster care.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When Dwayne Stenstrom was eight years old, a van pulled up to his home on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. The woman behind the wheel said she was taking him away, just for the summer, a summer that turned out to be 12 years long. Dwayne Stenstrom joins us now from his office in Mission, South Dakota, and nice to have you with us today.

DWAYNE STENSTROM: Thank you.

CONAN: And some listeners will remember you from a story last week on MORNING EDITION where you describe waiting for that lady and her van again at the end of that summer.

STENSTROM: Yeah, obviously it never came back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And you went on to a life in foster care there in Nebraska, with people who you say treated you very well.

STENSTROM: Yeah, when I was in foster care, and the last family that we ended up in, like I said, I thought it was just going to be a summer visit and I guess never really paid a lot of attention to, you know, what was going around me. Being that young, I don't know if I was supposed to, but I guess what was always on my mind was just waiting for that vehicle to come back and take me back home.

But I guess as the months went by and then the years went by, the realization was that I guess I wasn't going to go back.

CONAN: Eight years old, old enough to remember what your home on the reservation was like.

STENSTROM: Yeah, when I was home, I had my brother and my mother, we were together. I didn't - I wasn't very aware of my father. My father was out of the picture. But I always remembered, you know, I had a lot of friends there. There was one friend that I met years and years later, and I remember talking with him, and he was trying to figure out, you know, what happened to me back in '68, '69.

And the next time I'd seen him was like in 1981. And we were kind of put - I guess trying to put the pieces back together. And I think I spent the rest of my life just trying to understand what that was about. The family that took me in, we never, ever talked about my background as far as my ethnicity, the fact that I was of Native American descent.

I mean, it was like that whole part of my life was just omitted. You know, I just - that was in their eyes maybe a thing of the past, and if we don't bring it up, maybe he'll forget about it. You know, I don't - to this day - I mean, this is what, 2011 - I still can't wrap my arms and my mind around what that was all about back then.

CONAN: The way we heard it in the story is you were told that your mother drank too much.

Well, yeah, and I think back in those days, there was a lot of people that drank, you know, and that was all part of life, I guess. I mean, I don't know of too many people that didn't drink. But I guess it was based on their standards, not ours. I don't know. I can only go by what I was told.

And other people would say look, you're now a history professor, you're a success story. You have a family of your own. It all worked.

STENSTROM: To some extent I suppose they can look at it in that perspective. But emotionally and psychologically, I mean, a lot of the stuff that I've carried all these years I still carry today. How can something work when you had to wait 40 years to see a sister? I mean, I just met my sister in 2000, when I turned 40. That's the first time I'd ever seen her in my life.

And unfortunately, about a year ago, I buried her. But, you know, since all of this has come about, I've lost three of my siblings so far, two of my sisters and one of my brothers, and I've got two brothers and one sister that's left. And we try to, you know, keep connected, but proximity is an issue.

A couple of my brothers - my older brother, the one that was in the picture with me, one lives back in Winnebago, and another one lives out in Montana. You know, we keep in contact.

So like I said, I don't know - I guess the success that I found is that when I went back to the reservation, there was a whole part of me that was missing, and I've been able to reconnect with that when I got back home. But by then, I was out of the system. You know, I was out of the welfare system.

I did try to keep in contact with the biological or the adoptive family or the foster family that took me in up until they had passed away. But I guess other than that, I was pretty much on my own.

When I moved back to the Rosebud Reservation in 1980, I started working, and then I started going to college. And that's when I started getting some answers because I guess I needed to know what did I do? You know, I mean, I personalized it. What did I do? I was a little-bitty kid. What kind of a threat was I?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STENSTROM: And it just, it has never made any sense to me, and I think a lot of people over the years, I've been fortunate to work with other people, you know, that are in the same predicament that I'm in. You know, they were taken from their families. And people need to understand that prior to 1978, all of our records were sealed.

I was fortunate in that I was old enough, as you said, to know my family. I knew my grandfather. I knew my mother. I knew my aunts. I knew my uncles. I knew all of these people. And one morning I woke up, and they were all gone. And because I'm as young as I am, I can't, you know, go back and visit whenever I want.

And I think, you know, over the years, like I said, you're just supposed to forget about that part of your life. Well, you can't do that. Even when I look in that picture even today, you know, I see two happy little kids sitting there with my mother and sitting there with my oldest brother. And every time I see that picture, it takes me back to that day.

You know, what did we do? Why did I have to live that lifestyle? A lot of memories.

CONAN: Dwayne Stenstrom, thank you very much for your time, for sharing your story.

STENSTROM: Sure.

CONAN: Dwayne Stenstrom now teaches American history at a university on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. You may, again, have heard that story as part of an NPR investigative series that ran last week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

The investigation focused on South Dakota, where nearly 700 Native American children end up in foster care each year, the great majority with white foster parents in what would seem like a violation of a federal law that passed after Dwayne Stenstrom's story took place, The Indian Child Welfare Act.

We want to hear from people who have experience with this issue. Kids, parents, social workers, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa goes out a champ. But first NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan joins us here in Studio 3A. Her series ran last week. Nice to have you back, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And as you pointed out in your stories, there's no question that some Native American kids need to be taken out of their homes for their own safety. But what about that federal law that requires they be placed with their families or with their tribe, with Native Americans if at all possible?

SULLIVAN: Well, what you see happening here is twofold. On the one hand, you've got more than 700 Native American kids being removed from their families every year in South Dakota. And some of them are being removed in questionable circumstances.

And then on the other hand, of the ones that perhaps have to be removed or even don't have to be removed, the state is failing almost entirely to place them with their relatives or their tribes.

CONAN: You documented, by the way, there were places they could have put them with Native American people.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. So there were - if you look at the statistics, they've got foster families across the state to place these children in. But 90 percent of them are white foster families, and more than half of the kids are Native American. So 90 percent of the Native American kids are being placed in non-native foster homes or in group homes, these sort of giant homes for kids, like state-run orphanages, almost.

And the problem with that is that there is this law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, that says that if you have to remove from a child from a family, if you absolutely have to, if you've done everything you can to fix the family and programming or whatever, you have - you must place this child with a relative or with their tribal member because you want to keep the tribe intact.

You want - you don't want to remove generations of these children, which is why the law was put into place, because U.S. policy for 100 years was to remove all Native American children when they were five years old, put them in boarding school. I think they removed 60 percent, and they (unintelligible) forcibly remove them, put them in boarding schools where most of them were abused, traumatized, sent home at 18. They couldn't even speak their own language anymore.

CONAN: Terrible stories, yes, and because of that experience - now not only the federal government passed this law, and apparently the state of South Dakota, where you focused this story, and there's other states, we'll talk about that in a minute, but South Dakota, well, does not pay a lot of attention to it, and the federal government pays them to not pay attention to it.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. So what you have here is this situation where a state has a habit of doing something a certain way. They're just not placing these children with Native Americans or their family members. And then on the other hand, they have a financial incentive to remove them and put them in foster care.

The way our federal government is set up, the way that the foster care system works, is that states get paid per child. So every time you remove a child from a home, the state gets money. But if it's a poor state like South Dakota, it gets lots of money. It's just based on - it's based on the rates. The poorer your state, the more reimbursement you get from the federal government.

So in South Dakota, you know, they're basically getting three-quarters of the money back from the federal government. They put in 29 cents, the federal government puts in 71 cents. It's a big old coupon is what it is. And it's a coupon that fuels this sort of economic engine in South Dakota.

So this is a giant department. It's $100 million a year in a very poor state, employs 1,000 people. You know, thousands of adoptive parents get thousands of dollars a year. Hundreds of foster-care parents get thousands of dollars a year. Group homes get millions of dollars a year. And it's become sort of this economic engine.

And it's not that social workers are walking into homes with dollars signs on children's head. But it's that this is a giant bureaucracy that has no incentive to do something any other way.

CONAN: And it is not just South Dakota?

SULLIVAN: No, it's not. So there was a report in 2005 from the government. It was a government accountability audit. And they found that 32 states are failing in one way or another to abide by this law. And in this report, the GAO report, it said it reached out to Health and Human Services, which sends all the money, and to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which, you know, does a lot with the Indians and on Native American reservations.

And it said: Look, we've got this huge problem, 32 states failing. What are we going to do? And the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2005 said, I'm paraphrasing, but it's not our problem. This is HHS's problem. And HHS, the Health and Human Services Department, said we don't have the resources to handle this. So we can't do anything about it, either.

CONAN: There's also a question, the reservation is sovereign. How does the state of South Dakota drive a car onto the reservation and take away an Indian child? Indian agencies couldn't drive into Pierre, South Dakota...

SULLIVAN: Sioux Falls.

CONAN: And drive away with white children.

SULLIVAN: Right, so this is the heart of the problem for a lot of the tribal officials that we talked to. And we talked - I mean, we spoke to probably 150 people for this story. And what - half of the children are being removed from cities, and they have a different set of circumstances. But on the reservations, tribes are supposed to be sovereign.

The state of South Dakota said to us, officials said they have - we have the authority to do this. Tribal officials say they do not. But this has never been tested in a federal court in South Dakota. So it's sort of been a free-for-all at this point.

CONAN: Laura Sullivan, NPR investigative correspondent, she's talking about her three-part series Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. NPR's investigative series on Native American foster care focused on one state: South Dakota. But as we heard, there are more than 30 which fail to follow the federal law that requires Native American children in foster care to be placed with family or other Native Americans in most cases.

We want to hear from people who have experience with this issue. Kids, parents, social workers, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan is with us. You can find a link to her series at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's see if we go next to - this is Andrea(ph), Andrea with us from Aberdeen in South Dakota.

ANDREA: Yes, thanks for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

ANDREA: I am actually a foster parent in Aberdeen, South Dakota. And I operate a group home, actually. It's just a home that we have that has up to five girls in it. And I would say 75 to 80 percent of our population is Native American. And we do work closely with the Indian Child Welfare Act that we have to have that checked thoroughly with each child that we get in our home.

And we work closely a lot of times with tribes that does sign off on this. And there's just not enough homes in the area that are able to take these children. You know, we still keep them in close contact with their families as much as we can, and with their culture as well.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, there's a lot of homes that are trying to do the best that they can with these kids. And they're really putting in a great effort to try to keep them close to their culture.

The problem is that the law says that they should be with their tribes or with their families. And we actually found a number of empty Native American foster homes that are on the record in our story saying that they have waited for children to come and the state has simply not placed those children in Native American homes.

And what I heard over and over again from the state of South Dakota was we're trying. We're out there. We're trying to recruit Native American foster homes, but they don't meet our standards. Or we're trying, we just can't find any. And that's okay up to a point except that it's the law, and the law says you have to find them, and the law says you have to find a way to make this work. And other states have managed to do it.

So it's - so, you know, it's not the fault of anybody who's taking care of children. I mean, this is difficult work. But they should be with their families or tribes.

CONAN: Andrea, would it be - do you think it would be preferable if these kids were on the reservation with family or their tribes?

SULLIVAN: In certain cases, absolutely I think it would be great if they would be able to be closer to their families. In some cases we have children that are six to eight hours from where their family is.

CONAN: Because?

SULLIVAN: And that's hard because then it makes it harder to close contact and visits and everything else. So absolutely I could see cases where it would be best for these kids to be able to stay closer to where their home network is, absolutely.

CONAN: All right, Andrea, thanks very much, and we appreciate the phone call.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Terry Cross is director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, a private organization that works to support compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. He's also a member of the Seneca Nation and joins us from a studio at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Nice to have you with us today.

TERRY CROSS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand you just got back from Alaska. Rates there are similar to South Dakota. Your organization is helping to develop programs to try to change that. Exactly what are you trying to do?

CROSS: That's correct. We have a large project in Alaska. It's led by the Tlingit and Hyatt tribes of Alaska and a consortia of 16 tribes. And they're in partnership with the state and the state courts to do three things: They're increasing the capacity of the tribes to provide in-home services so children don't ever have to go into foster care, their families can stay together; second, to increase the number of tribal homes, particularly relatives' homes, by increasing the amount of tribal licensing of their own homes; and then finally to increase the capacity of the tribal services to work with the court systems.

CONAN: The tribal systems, there are large tribal corporations in Alaska. It's rather different from what we're familiar with down in the Lower 48.

CROSS: That's correct. And there's - in Alaska both the local village, the local village is recognized as a tribal government, and their services may come from that local village or from the regional corporation, depending on the arrangement that they've made internally.

CONAN: And as you're looking at this, I don't think anywhere is there more passion about retaining tribal culture and tribal way of life.

CROSS: Well, that's true across our tribal nations, Neal. It's one of the most important things to our people, survival in what we call the post-colonial era.

CONAN: And so given that, given the federal law, how do we end up with situations like that in Alaska or like that in South Dakota?

CROSS: Well, it's a very complex issue, but it relates very much to the economic disparities and health and behavioral health disparities; in other words, the degree of problems that are out in our communities. But primarily it's a lack of resources to support the tribes' own programs across the nations.

Tribes are doing wonderful things where they can get the resources to operate their own child welfare and foster care programs. And then the lack of communication and the stereotypes and cultural biases that are built in when social workers who come into our communities and our cultures, who know nothing about our extended families or about our child-caring, child-rearing practices and sometimes mistake behavior in our communities and call it neglect or remove children for inappropriate reasons - the Indian Child Welfare Act actually also requires that states prevent the removal of children by providing active efforts to keep the family together.

CONAN: Neglect, Laura Sullivan, that was one of the key words in your series.

SULLIVAN: It was one of the biggest problems that we found with this, is that when social workers would walk into a house, tribal leaders are saying they're not looking at neglect. What they're looking at is poverty. But that doesn't mean that the child isn't loved and cared for.

And if they're - you know, if they don't have toys, if they share food in a community kind of setting, if the refrigerator is empty but they use the food from down the road, there are all these things. And they also have a lot of traditions where they sleep with their children for - it goes back hundreds of years of sleeping on the prairie. And that simply doesn't fly to most caseworkers who walk into a house.

CONAN: Here's an email from a listener in Oregon: There's a reason why so many Native Americans are stuck in poverty and substance abuse. Just because relatives are available to take a child does not mean those relatives are in the best interest of the child, quote-unquote. Your story made too much of, quote-unquote, culture.

In the 21st century, is it fair to keep a child in a family which has serious substance abuse problems?

SULLIVAN: See, I would argue that most of the tribal officials would say to that - because this came up time and time again, this same stereotype - that if you remove an entire group's generation, next generation, if you remove all of these children from a tribe, that tribe has no future. They have no ability to rise up, to pull themselves up off the bootstraps, because you've taken all of their children away from them. And they don't come back because they no longer feel like they belong there.

And that's what happened with the boarding schools. And so a lot of people came back, a lot of people say that's where the alcoholism came back - came from, is this idea, you - then you send them back when they're 18, they don't know their language, they don't belong to anybody, and they start drinking.

And so they say that this is just a repetition of that same thing happening all over again. And what I found on these reservations were hundreds of loving parents who - and family members and grandmothers and aunts and uncles who were desperate to have their family members with them.

And it's one thing when you think in your head, oh, we'll remove a newborn who doesn't know anything about what family they're from, but if you remove an eight-year-old from a house and put them in six different foster homes and expect them to be a functioning adult when they're 18, that's a different story.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is James(ph), James on the line with us from Minneapolis.

JAMES: Yes, hello. I'm 29 years old, and I was born in Hooper Bay, Alaska. And my mother is an Eskimo, and my father is white. And when I was about five years old, my mom died from drinking. So my dad took me, and I went to see my other half of my family, which lived here in Minnesota and Ohio. And they were really worried about that law.

They were worried that the native corporations or the villages were going to find me, and so they changed my last name and so they couldn't track down my father, my father's a Vietnam vet, and I ended up living with my aunt and my grandma.

But so I didn't really get in contact with my native family until I was in my early 20s, and - but at the time, when I was young, I didn't realize what was going on. And now that I reflect on it now that I'm older, it was actually for the better.

My white family, my other half of my family, took care of me, took me in, made sure I got a proper education and a good childhood raising. And I actually turned out pretty good. And in hindsight it was for the best, even though I am just now starting to get to know my native family.

And so, you know, the laws and all these things, there is one positive story out of the whole gig because they didn't want me to go to foster homes and be bounced around and not know my real family and things like that.

SULLIVAN: The only difference with that story is, though, that you went to your family members. You know, you had an opportunity to go to people that you know, your father, your other family members. These are children who are removed from all of their family and placed 200 miles away in a house with nobody that they have ever known before in all of their lives and they and they never see their family again.

JAMES: Yes. That was the big fear. That's why they changed my last name and kind of kept me tucked away because, you know, I don't know if it was, you know, any - they were just - I don't know if there was any legal course for it, but they were worried about it. So I didn't really get to find out about my native heritage until I was in my 20s, till I found it out myself.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. Glad it worked out for you.

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Terry Cross, it was interesting. In Laura's piece, she said there were officials from at least three tribes who say they are hiding children, Indian children, Native American children, on the reservation, tribes that the - kids that the state wants back.

CROSS: That's right. You know, the - our tribes are really trying very hard to make sure that our children are protected and taken care of, and they're doing that through the development of their own tribal courts and their own foster care programs. And sometimes there is a fight over jurisdiction. And the - it is - many tribal governments regard the protection of their citizens as being paramount, and that begins with the youngest of children.

I do want to add, Neal, that, you know, I think one of the things that was revealed in the report, which I commend NPR for doing. This is a very important issue, that so often these stereotypes about Indian people. You know, it's - we often make the news only for the worst type of situation, and so people do get awful impressions about who we are. And, you know, yes, we - our people have had tremendous trauma, and responses to trauma can be things like substance abuse. But people don't know things like our culture has the highest rate of abstinence and sobriety of any culture in the country. You know, that doesn't make the news, and so we're very appreciative of having you take a look at these stereotypes that are driving the decisions that just are not good for kids.

CONAN: Terry Cross is director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, with us from Portland, Oregon today, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, Laura Sullivan, NPR investigative correspondent. Her three-part series "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families" ran last week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Jessica, Jessica with us from Kalamazoo.

JESSICA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a social worker in Michigan, and my question is: my understanding of the Indian Child Welfare Act - I've had experience with it - is that it's somewhat of a cooperation between the tribe and social services. And I've run into several issues before with the tribe. I fully wholeheartedly agree with all of your guests that children should be placed with families as comparable to their own, whether it's religious beliefs or ethnicity or any of that sort of thing. And so I do try to place my children adhering to that rule, but is there - did any of your guests do any further research into any problems that the tribes have had with implementing the ICWA rules on their part at all?

CONAN: ICWA, again, the federal law that...

SULLIVAN: Yeah. ICWA is the Indian Child Welfare Act. Well, there are nine tribes in South Dakota. We spoke to all of them, really. And they - I mean, they feel - I mean, the tribes in South Dakota feel passionately about this. I mean, this is not something that they're messing around with. And, you know, you're dealing with - so the larger tribes really have it together, where they scrape together money and they hire a lawyer when they have to, and they transfer as many cases into their tribal jurisdictions as they can.

The poorer tribes is where you see the bulk of these problems. So on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, they have 1,400 people living on this tiny little reservation. They have no money. It's one of the poorest - it is one of the top 10 poorest places in the United States. And they really have no recourse against the size, the breadth, the power of the state of South Dakota. And so South Dakota will come on and remove a child, and there's really not too much that they can do.

They would like to find homes for every single one of their children, but they've lost 33 children in recent years, and they don't even know where these children have gone. So it's a matter of resources and, you know - I mean, it's an unfair situation for some of these small tribes.

CONAN: Jessica, thanks very much.

JESSICA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Thomas, Thomas with us from San Pablo, California.

THOMAS: Thank you for having me. I am a foster/adopt father of a Native American boy. He's 9 years old. I find it that the canvas that we're painting here with a very wide brush, and I'd like to just point out that I - you know, I know that there are foster parents out there that are doing this for the money. I can guarantee you that, as a foster/adopt parent, that there is not enough money coming to foster families. We pay out more in social services, counseling and other non-reimbursed expenses than we actually bring in.

The second part is that we are not - you know, we are totally in support of his Native American culture, and we'll do everything that we can to support that. I'm in a same-sex couple relationship, and, you know, we as a family are developing that. And so the assumption that people are not - that non-native people are not capable of supporting these children I find slightly offensive.

So I just think that - you know, again, if you look at the way this is being portrayed that children - if you look at the mandate of the system, it's always, you know, reunification with the parents, that they would do anything, whether or not there's, you know, any ethnicity or any culture of a child, that it's always family reunification first. If that can't be possible, then it's relations. And if that's not possible, then they have to consider either, you know, fostering, adoption or other permanency plans. So the fact that this is somehow slanted, that this only applies to Native Americans I don't feel is fair.

SULLIVAN: Well, the situation here is that these - that the law says only in the rarest, most exceptional circumstances should they be placed with non-Native families. And that doesn't mean that there aren't parents out there that are doing wonderful, that are helping these children, and that they absolutely should have been removed from their parents because that whole family, the whole incredible big hodgepodge is just a giant disaster.

But the majority of the time, these families want these children. They are loved, and they belong to them. And just because they're poor and just because they're Native American doesn't mean that they can't raise these children. And I think that overall, in the state of South Dakota that's removing children at three times the rate of other states and the majority of the children they're taking are Native American, there's a much bigger problem going on.

CONAN: Terry Cross, can you stay with us for a few more minutes?

CROSS: I can. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. We're going to stay with Laura Sullivan as well and take a couple of more calls on the removal of Native American children, mostly to white homes in apparent violation of a federal law. Stay with us. We'll also talk about Tony La Russa.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: In a few minutes, the legacy of Tony La Russa. But let's continue our conversation about questionable practice in many states that place Native American children in foster care in white families in apparent - with white families in apparent violation of federal law. NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan is with us. Also with us, Terry Cross, director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is George. George with us from Lamoni in Iowa.

GEORGE (CALLER): Thank you, Neal. I'm an attorney, and about 20 years ago I was living in South Alabama, where there is a small Creek Indian tribe. And they have their own tribal court, and I was hired as the prosecutor for tribal court. And one of the things that I did as tribal prosecutor was work with the state's human resource cases where an Indian child would be removed from the reservation or where an Indian child who was living off-reservation would be brought in to the system because of some issue regarding their upbringing.

And one of the interesting things that I remember about that experience was that there was a requirement under the Indian Child Welfare Act that the state court notify the tribe whenever there was an Indian child that was before it. And the tribe had an opportunity to intervene and to try to advocate all those cultural issues and the preferences for placement in Indian family that are written into the Indian Child Welfare Act. And I don't know whether that system was unique because it had a well-developed tribal court system and whether the experience in South Dakota is different because those tribes are more impoverished. I don't know whether tribal guardian ad litems could be appointed in cases in South Dakota to come in to state court and advocate, you know, for placement with Indian families.

I just - I'm real curious as to how the experience I saw is so different from what I'm hearing in South Dakota, because I think we really did try hard to work with the state agency and to value the Indian placement and the integrity of the Indian family and...

CONAN: well, let's see if we get a response from Terry Cross.

CROSS: Yes. Well, the situation is quite - is very different across the country primarily based on resources and based on the ability of the tribal government to advocate for its children. Also, it varies a great deal by the relationship that the tribes have with the states. And in those places where tribes and states have built up a cooperative relationship particularly around child welfare, we see much more active and positive implementation of the act. We know it, our organization, that kids get better services when the adults in their lives work together, and that's what we strive for.

But unfortunately, in places like South Dakota are - where the - had often strong tensions partly based in other issues can cause there to be very low cooperation between the state systems and the tribal governments. And when you don't have the resources to even hire an attorney, then it's really hard to uphold your rights.

CONAN: And, Laura, in a case that you documented, the tribal council actually threatened the state with kidnapping charges...

SULLIVAN: They did.

CONAN: ...and finally got the kids released.

SULLIVAN: They did, yeah. She went and she told her whole story about how they took her granddaughter, how her daughter had never been charged with anything, that they just came one day. And a lot of the tribal members were familiar with this experience because it had happened to their family members too. And so they just - they did - for the first time ever, this tribe - this tribal council decided to pass a resolution where it said, we are going to charge the state of South Dakota with kidnapping and prosecute them if they do not return these children to our reservation. And they passed it. And nobody really thought this is going to work.

I mean, they just thought, well, we'll just give this a try. Maybe it'll put some fear. And sure enough, it did, and they returned the children. And the case was finally, finally, after a year and a half, this woman got a hearing in tribal court. But what's interesting in South Dakota about this idea of relationships is that the state of South Dakota created a collaborative circle, is what they called it, a few years ago to fix this problem so that they wouldn't be taking so many of the children. Well, when I started investigating this story, all nine tribes had unilaterally pulled out of the collaborative circle. So the only people left meeting once a quarter were the state officials. And they were - they just kept on meeting for several years. And I asked, so how is this collaborative circle working out? It's working out great. We're doing great. But no tribes are showing up to the collaborative circle.

And they also have this, like what the caller was talking about, they have something called an ICWA expert that's supposed to testify, be an independent person decide whether or not the child will be best in state foster care or the tribe. All 12 ICWA experts are paid - they're employees of the Department of Social Services. They are paid by the Department of Social Services. So they generally side with - I don't want to say - either way, they generally are siding with the Department of Social Services.

CONAN: You pointed out many states are in violation of the ICWA law. In Minnesota, writes Cindy(ph), on email, we always try to place with relatives, the Fond du Lac license tribal homes and work closely with the local county government. In some places, clearly it's working.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Some places are doing a fantastic job, where they are really reaching out, finding families, finding Native American foster care providers. I mean, if you live in one place with all of your family for more than 100 years, you've got a lot of family members. There's somebody there that can take a child in. And the tribes say the state is just not trying hard enough.

CONAN: Well, we'll leave it there. Terry Cross, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

CROSS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Terry Cross, director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, member of the Seneca Nation, joined us today from Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. There's a link to Laura Sullivan's pieces at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Laura, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And when we come back, we'll talk with Mike Pesca about the legacy of Tony La Russa.

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