Fault Lines

The Fight for Native Families

Fault Lines examines why so many Native American children are caught in the child welfare system in South Dakota.

From the halls of the US Supreme Court to the reservations of the Great Plains, Fault Lines follows the story of the Native American children caught up in the country’s child welfare system.

(The state) tells us this is not an adversarial proceeding, this is something we are all just supposed to go along with. From the Indian perspective, who sees this in terms of history, this is about as adversarial as it gets. When the state is trying to take their children, they are just following on a historical tradition that started a long time ago.

by Dana Hanna, attorney

We travel to South Dakota, a state which removes children from their homes more frequently than almost any other in the US.

Native American children make up only 13 percent of the children in South Dakota but they account for more than 50 percent of those in foster care.

The majority are placed with non-Native families, in group homes or institutions. And for the Lakota people, the issue is not just about child custody, but about cultural survival.

At the heart of the debate is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law which says that except in the rarest circumstances, Native American children must be placed with their relatives or tribes.

It has been nearly 35 years since ICWA became law, but in the time since then the number of Native children placed in non-Native care has barely budged.

Three tribes in South Dakota and several Native mothers charge that officials in Pennington County are routinely violating the ICWA and have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state.

They argue that Native parents are not given fair court hearings and children are being removed for unjustifiably long periods of time.

On the nearby Pine Ridge reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, social workers, tribal judges and community members are trying to keep Native families together, despite staggering unemployment, problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and a juvenile suicide epidemic.

With ICWA making headlines over the recent Supreme Court verdict on baby Veronica, highlighting long-standing tensions about forced displacement of Native children, Fault Lines examines why so many Native American children in South Dakota are caught in the child welfare system and what tribal families are doing to fight it.