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ARI SHAPIRO, host: Native American children are almost three times as likely as other kids to wind up in foster care. That's true even when the family circumstances are similar. It's happening despite a federal law that says these kids should be placed with family members or with their tribes.

This week, NPR has been investigating the cultural perceptions and financial subsidies behind this pattern. While some kids have a positive experience in foster care, for Native American children, even in the best circumstances, the loss of culture and identity can leave a deep hole. NPR's Laura Sullivan has this story of one man who's spent a lifetime trying to fill it.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Dwayne Stenstrom is a professor of American history and you can tell by his office. Towers of obscure books, poetry on the walls, there's even a copy of the Declaration of Independence, leftover from a class.

He teaches this document like many other professors, we hold these truths to be self evident, and all that. But his class stops on another phrase, one toward the end few probably remember about the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless, Indian savages.

DWAYNE STENSTROM, PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN HISTORY: What's significant to me is the impact that it has on a lot of our Native American kids when it still regards Indians as merciless, Indian savages.

SULLIVAN: Stenstrom teaches at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He grew up in foster care. He married his wife 31 years ago, raised six kids. He's as passionate about history as he is his community. Most social services departments would look at him and say job done. So what's the problem?

STENSTROM: The problem is that that's a fallacy. I never got this way - however that way is - until I came back to the reservation.

SULLIVAN: The Indian Child Welfare Act says that except in the rarest cases, native children who have to be removed from their homes must be placed with relatives, their tribes, or other Native Americans. Yet 32 states are failing in some way, to abide by this law, according to a 2005 government audit.

The result is generations of children growing up without a connection to their culture and traditions, like Dwayne Stenstrom did. He grew up on the Nebraska plains, on the Winnebago Reservation. He and his brother spent the warm summers outside on the prairie with their grandfather.

But in the spring of 1968, a van pulled up outside his house. He was eight years old. The driver, a woman, told him he and his brother were going away - just for the summer. His grandfather looked worried.

STENSTROM: He told me never to forget where I come from and to embrace it.

SULLIVAN: That was the last time he saw him. Stenstrom passed the summer at several foster homes. One day the van took him to Ainsworth, Nebraska, to a house where an older couple lived. Their own children were grown and gone. There, he and his brother waited for fall so they could go home.

STENSTROM: I'm thinking, like, when the summer's over, then the little van is going to come and get me. It still hasn't come and got me. I'm still sitting there, you know, emotionally I'm still sitting there in Ainsworth, waiting for the little van to come. And I don't expect it's coming.

SULLIVAN: Years later, he was told by a state worker that his mother drank too much. But he doesn't have any bad memories. He knows she loved him. When he closes his eyes, he can see it in her face.

What he can't understand is why, if he absolutely had to leave his mom, he wasn't sent to live with one of his relatives. He had hundreds of them. Instead, he was sent to a white foster home.

STENSTROM: I grew up in a teepee, for heaven's sake. I mean, this isn't a cliché. Go to bed in a circular teepee tonight and wake up tomorrow morning with four walls. And when you open your eyes, you don't recognize anybody in the room. And sit there for 12 years. Because that's what I did.

SULLIVAN: Sometimes he dreamed about Native American ceremonies. But when he woke up, the details were gone. For a while, he hoped his two older brothers would come and get him. But they had both been drafted and sent to Vietnam.

STENSTROM: I'm sitting here feeling sorry for me because I lost my mom. Imagine what she went through.

SULLIVAN: Stenstrom liked his foster parents. He says they treated him well, but he still refers to them as the mother of the family, the father, not his mother or father.

STENSTROM: I learned to appreciate that family. I mean, I stayed with them up until both of them passed away. I remember when the mother passed away, and I went back to her funeral, and one of her kids asked, why is he here?

SULLIVAN: After that, something snapped. And like many children who leave foster care every year, Stenstrom turned to alcohol. He got in trouble with the law.

STENSTROM: The only thing that I had going for me was my memory. I looked in four directions and there wasn't nobody. And I'm like, you know, I've got to do something different, because there's nothing here for me.

SULLIVAN: That's when he says he went home, to the reservation, to figure out who he really was. He says it saved him.

Every week or so, on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, former foster care kids walk into Juanita Sherick's office. They want to be saved too. And Sherick knows the feeling.

JUANITA SHERICK: I was taken from my mom and dad when I was about nine years old.

SULLIVAN: Sherick says, like the kids who walked in her door, she lost her language and what she calls her tiospaye - her tribal family.

SHERICK: A lot of times it's real painful for me to think about it, because my brother and I went through a lot. And I have never forgotten it. I think that's why I work so hard in this job.

SULLIVAN: She's now the tribe's social worker. The most difficult mornings are when young kids are waiting at her door. They're runaways from foster care.

What do you do when these kids come here and say we're hiding?

SHERICK: I don't give them back to the state of South Dakota, that's for damn sure, you know me.

SULLIVAN: That feeling is common on South Dakota's reservations. Officials from three separate tribes told NPR they are actively hiding children from state caseworkers.

Sherick says she finds a relative to take them in - something she says the state should have done in the first place.

SHERICK: They are so happy to see their Grandma. I mean, they just cry. It makes you cry. So I think that those are the times that it's all worth it.

SULLIVAN: After Dwayne Stenstrom found his way home, he says he connected with the spirit of his grandfather and made peace with the years he spent in foster care. And eventually, he even found his mother. She told him she had searched for him for years. He spent six months with her before she died of cancer.

STENSTROM: I mean that was my mom. And I mean, that meant the world to me.

SULLIVAN: Not too long ago a boy, about six years old, almost the same age Dwayne Stenstrom was when he was sent to foster care, found his way to the pay phone at the mini-mart on South Dakota's Cheyenne River reservation.

DIANE GARREAU: He ran away from a foster home in Lemmon. And he was looking through the phone book because he had remembered names of his family.

SULLIVAN: Diane Garreau is the tribe's social worker. She says children don't understand the federal law. They don't know whether or not a state is complying with it. All they know is their family.

GARREAU: It goes to show you that they try and come home. They'll always come home. They should have never left here.

SULLIVAN: For Garreau and dozens of other tribal officials, the difference between running away and running home is whether or not you're running in the direction you belong.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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