Monday, June 11, 2012

Foster care in South Dakota: The state goes after another child welfare whistleblower

            It’s hard to say in which state it is most dangerous to take on child protective services – but a good case can be made for South Dakota.

            For the second time in less than a year, South Dakota authorities allegedly retaliated against a whistleblower who sought to change the state’s horrific child welfare system, a system whose failings were exposed in a Peabody award-winning series by NPR last fall.

            The first instance concerns Robert Doody, executive director of the South Dakota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Shortly after he announced that the South Dakota ACLU was looking into the NPR stories and gathering cases for a possible class-action lawsuit, his own child was taken from him.  As of May 1, that child still was in foster care.

            But now, it turns out, even a prosecutor may not be immune from the long, vengeful arm of South Dakota authorities.

            Brandon Taliaferro used to be in charge of prosecuting real child abuse in Brown County, which includes the City of Aberdeen.  But according to a report from the Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP), that didn’t blind Taliaferro to the abuses of the South Dakota Department of Social Services.

           On his own, Taliaferro had drawn the same conclusions as NPR: South Dakota DSS repeatedly tore apart Native American families needlessly, and South Dakota repeatedly violated a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). For that he lost his job.  According to the LPLP report: 

Mr. Taliaferro was fired after a face-to-face meeting with D.S.S. official Virginia Weisler and D.S.S. Chief Counsel Daniel Todd. In that meeting D.S.S. Officer Weisler and D.S.S. Chief Counsel Todd accused Mr. Taliaferro of “not being a team player” and of “being disloyal to the D.S.S.”

            Taliaferro was fired by Brown County state attorney Kim Dorsett.  No one would accuse her of being disloyal to DSS – particularly since Dorsett had a $75,000 contract to represent DSS – a lot more than she was being paid to be Brown County state attorney at the same time.

            According to the LPLP report:

On December 19, 2011, The Aberdeen News reported that Mr. Taliaferro “said that it is financially beneficial for the department to remove American Indian children from their homes and place them in [white] foster homes.” Mr. Taliaferro said that, over the years in which he served as the Assistant State Attorney in Brown County in charge of prosecuting abuse & neglect cases, he and the D.S.S. were “often at odds.”

In official papers filed with the State Department of Labor in his appeal of his firing, Mr. Taliaferro charged that “following the orders of State Attorney Dorsett would have required [me] to violate the law, and ethical rules that govern attorney conduct.” Referring to the unlawful South Dakota state policy of systematically violating the Indian Child Welfare Act, Mr. Taliaferro asserted that he refused to participate in “a cover-up of misconduct” by the D.S.S.


            But state officials weren’t through with Taliaferro. 

This part of the story begins with the placement of four Native American girls, ages 7,9,14 and 16, in a white foster home in Brown County.  They were placed over the objections of the children’s adult sister, who offered to take the girls in.  Federal law encourages states to give preference to relatives whenever a child must be placed in foster care, and the Indian Child Welfare Act requires it when the children are Native American.  The whole thrust of the NPR stories, of course, was South Dakota’s contempt for ICWA and its horrendous treatment of Native American children.

            The older girls complained that they were being sexually abused by the foster father, and the foster mother threatened to punish them if they told authorities.  Taliaferro investigated and concluded that the allegations were true.  He charged the foster father with 23 felony counts of aggravated rape of a child and aggravated incest.  The foster mother was charged with 11 felony counts of aiding and abetting the foster father’s crimes.

            Taliaferro was supported by Shirley Schwab, the director of the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program in the county.  That, in itself, is extraordinary, given that CASA usually shows a profound bias in favor of foster parents and against birth parents.

            According to LPLP, these charges came after repeated reports were made to the South Dakota Department of Social Services alleging abuse by the foster parents.  DSS refused to investigate.

            But DSS and the state attorney general were a lot more aggressive about going after Taliaferro and Schwab. 

            The attorney general and the state Department of Criminal Investigation have charged Taliaferro and Schwab with “unauthorized disclosure of child abuse information” and “witness tampering” According to the LPLP report, Taliaferro and Schwab say these agencies are “actively coordinating with DSS officials” to use these “fabricated allegations” to discredit the evidence against the foster parents.  LPLP notes that the charges were brought  “immediately after the embarrassing [NPR] expose” of South Dakota DSS.

           The foster father ultimately pled guilty to one count of rape of a child under ten years old.  He will be sentenced to 15 years in prison, with parole possible after five.  According to LPLP, prosecutors originally planned to dismiss all of the charges against the foster father, except for one misdemeanor charge of spanking one child.  Only after the birth family expressed its outrage at the secret deal were the charges upgraded.

            LPLP reports that its investigation

revealed a common pattern: South Dakota state prosecutions tend to dramatically downplay criminal abuse cases brought against white foster care parents when Lakota Indian children are the victims. On the other hand, our investigation shows that Lakota parents are systematically treated more severely by D.S.S. than are white parents for virtually identical conduct. Indeed, over the last ten years, Lakota children in South Dakota have been systematically removed from their Lakota parents under factual circumstances under which white children would never have been taken away from their white parents. This is exactly the conduct of which former Assistant State Attorney Taliaferro accused D.S.S. officials,
            A hearing on the charges against Taliaferro and Schwab is scheduled for Wednesday.