A Fight For Her Grandchildren Mirrors A Native Past Suzanne Crow's three year struggle to bring her grandchildren home after they were placed in South Dakota's foster care system reminds her of the days she, and other American Indians were sent to boarding schools.
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A Fight For Her Grandchildren Mirrors A Native Past

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A Fight For Her Grandchildren Mirrors A Native Past


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic group in the U.S., but they are also among the least likely to invest and to keep money in 401k and other retirement savings accounts. We'll talk about why this might be and what a few financial services companies are doing to try to seize this opportunity. We'll talk about that in a minute.

But first, we want to talk about another story that deeply affects some Americans more than others, Native Americans, and we're talking about foster care. Overall, more than 420,000 in the U.S. are in the foster care system, according to recent numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services. Now, for some of those children, the foster care experience may bring stability but for others it is an emotionally traumatic experience that leaves them more scarred than they were originally.

Adding to this is the allegation that children from some backgrounds, particularly Native Americans, are forced into foster care when children in similar circumstances would not be. That is Suzanne Crow's experience. Suzanne Crow lost two of her grandchildren to the South Dakota foster care system in 2007. The state cited neglect as the reason for taking the children from Crow's daughter Lena. It took Suzanne Crow more than three years to get the children back. It turns out her experience is not uncommon.

While Native Americans make up less than 15 percent of South Dakota's population, a full 60 percent of the children in foster care are Native American. And Suzanne Crow's story is part of an NPR News investigation on Native American children in South Dakota's foster care system, and she joins us now from her home on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Ms. Crow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SUZANNE CROW: You're welcome.

MARTIN: How are the children doing now, if you don't mind my asking?

CROW: They're doing good.

MARTIN: They're a boy and a girl. They're both under 18. Now as I understand it, they didn't come back to either your daughter Lena or to you.

CROW: No. My daughter, they took her parental rights away first, and then I filed a petition for adoption. And when it came time to decide about the adoption, their stepdad filed a petition for adoption, too.

MARTIN: Are they with him now?

CROW: Yeah, they're with him. He's married to a non-Indian woman, and I think she had a big part in the decision.

MARTIN: Well, as we mentioned, and according to this NPR News investigation, the story of your losing your grandchildren is not unique. I wanted to ask, in your circle of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, how common is it to have an experience of children being taken away?

CROW: It's real common. It's almost the same as back in the day when they took all the Indian kids and put us all in boarding school.

MARTIN: What was the reason why your grandchildren were taken away from your daughter?

CROW: She said she left them with her cousin and she was supposed to move out of her house that day, so she went to get a van and she didn't come back for a long time and that her cousin just walked away from the kids.

MARTIN: Well, I think you would agree that was a dangerous situation, wouldn't you?

CROW: Yes.

MARTIN: So what do you think should have happened in that case?

CROW: Well, what should have happened is somebody - I think there was two college students that lived in the duplex with her and they supposedly called the police. And I lived across the street. But at the time, I was on the reservation doing some business. So, my grandkids told the police our grandma lives over there if you could wait for her. But by the time I got the phone call, they'd already been there about two hours.

But when I got there, I went to the police. I went to the - they call it the children's inn to tell them I'm their grandmother, I'm home, I can take them, but nobody would give them to me.

MARTIN: Now, the state of South Dakota makes the argument that it has the responsibility to make sure children are obviously safe. I'm sure you would agree with that. And as we understand it, just from NPR's reporting in this case, there was the allegation that the children had been left outside unattended for some time. There was a concern that your daughter was also abusing alcohol. But it is your view that you, as the grandparent, and you were capable of taking them, that you should have been the first choice?

CROW: Yes.

MARTIN: There are those who would listen to our conversation and would say, and forgive me, I'm not judging you and I'm not judging your daughter, but there are those who would say if your daughter did have an alcohol problem and if she did leave the children unattended and if she did leave them with people who were no longer willing to care for them, what should the state have done? Your response would be?

CROW: If my daughter wasn't capable, then they should have handed them over to me instead of dragging them through all that torment before I could get them. And another thing that I don't agree with is the state of South Dakota, they're thinking about putting Indian kids where it's safe is not the same as mine.

MARTIN: Could you talk more about that?

CROW: Well, I don't think that, like, when they came to inspect my home before when I - after I filed the petition for adoption, I did everything. I went to foster parenting classes. They did that background check on me. They came and checked my home and everything was good. But in the beginning when they say that they want the Native American kids to be safe, that's not necessarily what they really mean. That's just an excuse to keep them longer in the system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Suzanne Crow. She's a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe. We're talking about the South Dakota foster care system. Two of her grandchildren were placed with a foster family for more than three years. Some 60 percent of the children in South Dakota's foster care system are Native American, even though Native Americans are less than 15 percent of the state's population.

You mentioned this earlier, so I just want to bring this up again. You said that this reminds you of back in the day when children were sent to boarding schools. This was an experience that you had, isn't that right? That you were placed in an Indian boarding school?

CROW: Yeah. That's how it was back in the day. And because a lot of our people weren't used to standing up for themselves, whatever they told our parents or our grandparents, whoever was in charge when they took us kids from whoever, they just listened to them and we went.

MARTIN: And I don't want to make you go through that whole experience again, but can you just talk a little bit about what that was like for you? As I understand, it was a very difficult experience.

CROW: Yeah, it was because, you know, you get taken away. I remember when they put me there I was five years old. I remember going down a hall and my mother was behind us and there was a nun taking us. And it's a big room. They called it the press. And inside of there was racks and racks and racks of all kinds of little dresses. So, we thought that we were just going in there to get some clothes or whatever. And I turned around and my mom was gone.

MARTIN: And you still remember that.

CROW: It was just like you're in jail.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

CROW: Almost like, you know how when they catch animals, they just run every which way trying to find a way out? That's how it felt to me.

MARTIN: I think a lot of parents would understand how you feel about that and also anybody who has children or is close to a child can understand how devastating it must have been for you to suddenly be separated from your mother like that with no explanation. So, you could see where this could inform your view about this. Is it your view, going back to what we were talking about earlier, that the real issue here is a prejudice against the Native American culture, the feeling that the culture is not worthy and therefore children are automatically better off with non-Native Americans no matter what the circumstances? Is that your view?

CROW: I think so. You know, I don't know when they started to call us culture, but it was just our way of life, you know. Because you don't - what's the culture of the Wichita people? What's their culture? I don't know.

MARTIN: I should mention that NPR's Laura Sullivan did contact the state's Department of Child Protective Services and they've told NPR in interviews that they would not speak about individual cases like yours, Suzanne Crow. So, I just wanted to let people know about that. Well, finally, thank you for talking with us. I know this isn't the easiest thing to talk about. But is there anything else that you would like us to know about this? Or perhaps another way to ask this would be for people who are not directly involved, why do you think it's important that they know about it?

CROW: Well, I think it's really important for Native American people to know. There are so much things that are kept from them. The DSS, if they've taken some of their little relatives off the reservation, they don't notify anybody like they're legally bonded to.

MARTIN: Do you think that the large number of Native American children in foster care is affecting the tribe?

CROW: Yes, of course. It's affecting the tribe in more ways than just them being gone. It's affecting the genetic memory. Maybe those are chiefs coming up and they're gone. Maybe they have some really important something for all our people, but they've been taken away.

MARTIN: Suzanne Crow is a member of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, where Native American children make up a majority of those in foster care, even though they are only a fraction of the population. Two of her grandchildren were in the foster care system for more than three years, but they now live with another family member. Suzanne Crow, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CROW: Thank you, too.

MARTIN: To learn more about Suzanne Crow's story and NPR's investigative series, "Native Foster Care: Missing Children, Shattered Families," please go to npr.org.

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