Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Officials in two states that routinely destroy Native American families make their position clear: We don’t care, we don’t have to.

South Dakota tears apart families at a rate well above the national average. Native American children are 13% of the child population and 74% of the foster child population.  But hey, a slogan is a slogan, right?

There were two important news stories last week from states that destroy astounding numbers of Native American families every year.  The stories make one thing clear: State officials and many state lawmakers don’t give a damn about it. 

● Montana continually vies with West Virginia for the title Child Removal Capital of America.  In Montana that’s partly because the state family police agency tears apart so many Native families.  The Montana Free Press reports that Native children are 10% of the state’s child population and one-third of the foster child population.  The Free Press story is filled with such data – and filled with bland, boilerplate, buck-passing responses from state officials like this one from the head of the state family police agency: “I think it’s really about continuing to have the conversation.”  The closest thing she has to a concrete solution is no solution at all – making it easier to place Native children in hidden foster care

● It’s even worse in South Dakota, another state that takes away children at a rate well above the national average.  In South Dakota, Native Americans are 13 percent of the child population and nearly three-quarters of the foster-child population, an issue first exposed in 2010 by NPR.  South Dakota Searchlight and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader returned to the subject with an excellent series last year, documenting how the state cuts a swath of destruction through Native families.  Now they’ve followed up with a story about legislative proposals for change.  

One of those proposals is one that most state legislatures would routinely approve, since it delays actually doing anything: creating a task force.  But those who want to see change are having trouble getting the South Dakota Legislature to do even that much. 

More substantive legislation already has been defeated.  Under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, states are supposed to make “active efforts” to keep families together, a higher standard than the “reasonable efforts” required un federal law (but almost universally ignored) for other families.  A bill to require active efforts for all South Dakota children – and to explain exactly what that term means – was defeated yesterday.  

Even the head of a local Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, herself a Native American, favored the bill.  As the Argus-Leader reported: 

For example, if a parent needs to overcome substance abuse, an active effort would be helping that parent with a ride to a treatment class, said Kehala Two Bulls, the executive director of the 7th Circuit Court CASA program. A reasonable effort would be giving that parent a list of treatment programs. 

I would disagree that a list of treatment programs is anywhere near reasonable as an effort – it’s pretty typical of the failure to make reasonable efforts -- but you get the idea.  Getting the parent to the program is a reasonable effort.  Bringing home-based drug treatment to the parent, as Connecticut does in some cases, is an active effort. 

But the head of South Dakota’s family police agency, Matt Althoff said, presumably with a straight face, that they’re already making “active efforts” in the cases of Native American children who, again, make up 74% of the state’s foster care population.

An opponent of the bill said: “How do we put something in into law when everybody is interpreting this differently?”  And here I’d been operating under what is, apparently, the absurd notion that this is why you put things into law in the first place.