October 25, 2011
Anna Christopher, NPR



In South Dakota, NPR Explores Why Hundreds of Native American Children Are Separated From Their Families Every Year

It's a disturbing pattern: in South Dakota, hundreds of Native-American children are placed in state foster care every year. An NPR News Investigation found many are taken in questionable circumstances while the state is largely failing to place them with their family and tribes, as federal law requires. The families, often impoverished and lacking resources, are left with little information and minimal power to fight back. Some wait years to reunite with their children. The children, designated "special needs" by the state because of their race, are almost exclusively placed with non-Native families or in group homes, despite the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which mandates that Indian children be placed with relatives or tribal members.

These are among the many exclusive findings of an NPR News Investigation, breaking today. The investigation examines how lack of knowledge about Native culture and traditions and federal financial funding all influence the decision to remove so many children. Correspondent Laura Sullivan reports a three part series, "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families," beginning today with a 22-minute story on All Things Considered. Parts two and three will air later this week on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Additional information and follow-up interviews will be available this week and next on Talk of the Nation and at NPR.org; today, Tell Me More talks with Suzie Crow, a South Dakota woman whose grandchildren were caught up in the state foster care system.

Through more than 150 interviews with state and federal officials, tribal representatives and families from eight South Dakota tribes, plus a review of thousands of records, Sullivan and NPR producers pieced together a narrative of inequality in the foster care system across the state. Sullivan recounts the personal stories of parents and grandparents who describe suffering, anger and confusion, as well as time lost with their children and grand-children. State officials cite substance abuse and poverty as the reason so many children are removed from their homes, while tribe members and leaders contend that poverty and cultural tradition are often mistaken for neglect.

Sullivan also examines whether federal funding creates a financial incentive for the state to remove so many children. A close review of South Dakota's budget by NPR shows that because the state is poor, it receives a large amount of federal money – almost a hundred million dollars a year – to subsidize its foster care program. States receive additional money if they move children out of foster care and into adoption, and in some cases get even more money if the child is Native American.

Among NPR's exclusive findings:

· Each year, South Dakota removes an average of 700 Native children from their homes. Indian children are less than 15 percent of the population, but make up more than half the children in foster care. In South Dakota, Native children are removed from their homes in at almost three times the rate of other states.

· In 1978 Congress passed The Indian Child Welfare Act that says Native-American children must be placed with their family members, relatives, their tribes or at the very least other Native Americans – if they have to be removed from their parents. However, nationally, Native children are more than twice as likely to be sent to foster care as children of other races, even in similar circumstances.

· Despite this federal law, in South Dakota, nearly 90 percent of Native-American children sent to foster care are placed in non-Native homes or group care.

· A South Dakota Department of Social Services worker tells Sullivan the state does its best to place Native kids with relatives or in Native foster homes, but they’ve only got a few and they don't have room, and sometimes safety is a consideration. A care provider on the Crow Creek Sioux reservation, however, tells NPR that she’s been licensed since 2005 and her home has been empty for six years. Another care provider on the same reservation who’s been a foster parent for over a year echoes this, saying she’s never been called to take in any kids. In that year, hundreds of Native children in South Dakota were placed in white foster homes. Another reservation, Pine Ridge, says they’ve got 20 empty homes.

· Less than 12 percent of Native children in South Dakota foster care had been physically or sexually abused in their homes, below the national average. The state says the parents have “neglected” their children, a subjective term. Tribe leaders tell NPR what social workers call neglect is often poverty. And sometimes Native tradition.

· A close review of South Dakota’s budget shows that because the state is poor, it receives a large amount of federal money – almost a hundred million dollars a year – to subsidize its foster care program.

· Last year the federal government reimbursed the state for almost three quarters of its foster care expenses. A review by NPR shows this is common in a lot of states that have high numbers of Native kids in foster care.

· States receive additional money if they move children out of foster care and into adoption – about $4,000 a child. But for a child with special needs, states can receive as much as $12,000. NPR reports that a decade ago, South Dakota designated all Native-American children as special needs children. In 10 years, this adoption program has brought South Dakota almost a million dollars in federal funds.

Parts two and three of "Native Foster Care" will air later this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, when details about those reports will be released and available at NPR.org.

All text excerpts must be credited to "NPR News." Broadcast outlets may use up to sixty (60) consecutive seconds of audio from the reports. Television usage must include on-screen chyron to "NPR News" with the NPR logo.

The NPR News Investigative Unit crosses all news desks and programs to build upon, and strengthen the commitment to, NPR's established investigative work. The team’s extensive reporting includes Post Mortem, exploring why many suspicious deaths are improperly investigated; Brain Wars, an ongoing examination of traumatic brain injury and the military; and a continuing look at mine safety in America, following the explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia. NPR reaches a growing audience of more than 27 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit www.npr.org