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ICWA hearings turn emotional
�� Indian Country Today November 01, 2004. All Rights Reserved
PINE RIDGE, S.D. - A series of listening sessions by the Governor's Commission on the Indian Child Welfare Act found the heat turned up on emotions, frustration and anger as witness after witness asked that their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews be returned home.
''You take out children out of our lands by usurping our laws. It is like a military action, it's a form of assimilation so that we will forget the treaties,'' said Cornell Conroy, a member of the Brave Heart Society. ''The Brave Heart Society is to protect the children. The U.S. government abrogated our right to protect our children.''
He told the commissioners that when a child is born into a Lakota family the child is taken outside in full view of a rising sun where prayers are said.
''God you gave me this child, I thank you. I will be responsible, not with a whip, but with reasoning. That is the prayer,'' he said. ''You have a total disregard for our way of life. Our children are looked at like dollar signs. You beat the Indian out of the child. We must be given the right to exist our way,'' Conroy said.
At a recent meeting of the governor's ICWA commission Conroy set the tone that would continue throughout the day in two locations.
The charge to the commission is to submit a report at the end of the year so the state legislature can decide what action to take.
The state's Department of Social Services has frequently come under strong criticism from the American Indian community over its treatment of American Indian children without regard, as the critics argue, to the federal ICWA laws.
''We will go to every reservation for a listening session to find out how we are not in compliance,'' said Janine Kern, South Dakota Circuit Court Judge, and co-chairwoman of the commission.
Testimony before other legislative committees has taken on much the same emotional tenor with anecdotal information from families present at the listening sessions. Complaints that ICWA was ignored are supported with testimony about lack of contact with the tribes or with extended family members when placement of a child is in question.
A bill introduced in the 2004 legislature that would strengthen the federal ICWA law in the state was sidetracked by the governor and instead the study commission was formed.
An independent research group is also in the process of searching through court and DSS case files selected at random to assess compliance with the federal law.
One of the most asked questions is why extended and nuclear family rights are terminated when parental rights are terminated. No answer to that question was available at the listening sessions. A reminder from those testifying is that in the Lakota culture the extended family is very important to the children's future. Questioned was why the grandparents or aunts and uncles of a child also lost rights to see the child after the parental rights were terminated.
Some parental rights were terminated even after the parent completed court ordered alcohol treatment and parenting classes, and in some cases in excess of what was required.
Monica Titus told the commission that when her son was taken away from her, her mother applied to take the child, but when Titus' rights were terminated, so were the grandmother's. Titus' mother is a licensed foster mother, has children under her care and was willing take her grandson, Titus said.
Oglala Tribal President John Steele told the commission that the tribe, with a new charter would take charge of child welfare on the reservation. The new program will not be connected to the tribal government.
''The state hires some of us and then they made us resign. There are a lot of non-Indians that work in the system. White social workers can't put themselves in our moccasins. They don't know how our families work. We can handle our own kids,'' he said.
When the DSS holds an interview with a family they may find two or three families living in one home; children may be sleeping on mattresses on the floor, boys and girls together. That's how it is in the Oglala culture, Steele and others said.
''We need 4,000 new homes to meet the backlog.'' He said that with a younger population, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 21, and there will be more need for homes.
The ICWA bill introduced in the state legislature in 2004 was supported by all nine tribal chairmen. The tribal leadership worked hard to have the bill implemented.
''It would be worth saving one child that is sent to the system, but we are talking about a lot of children,'' Steele said.
When American Indian youths are placed with non-Indian foster families, trauma sets in and eventually anger, and bad behavior, many people testified. Some spoke of abuse and neglect of the children at the hands of the foster parents.
James Ellenbecker, secretary for the Department of Social Services, attended the listening sessions. He said some of the children who were put in foster families were damaged before they arrived. He also admitted that more training for the social workers would be helpful.
''It is good the Oglala Sioux Tribe will have the charter. We want to work with the tribes. It's good if they have their own welfare system,'' said Ellenbecker
Nancy Fleming, a former childcare worker for the state said it was an all-white system and in a position of power the people may go too far. ''Everything should happen at the tribal level,'' she said.
One story about a 3-year-old boy, who was taken into custody after his father was arrested for a DUI, explained the trauma children experience. The father was released, but the child stayed in the hands of child welfare. The grandmother said she fought all weekend to have the child returned. She had to undergo an inspection of her home and a background check.
''When I saw my grandson he ran from the DSS worker into my arms, he was scared,'' she said.
Later the young boy was riding in the car to Rapid City with his two older sisters and told them to not move, because a policeman would take them away.
Please visit the Indian Country Today website for more articles related to this topic.
To Whom It May Concern, The Displacement of Native Children to Non-Native families and Couples has gone on Long Enough. It started with the Virginia & other Eastern Tribes as far back as the first English Settlement and the Kidnapping of Pocahontas. The practice of Forced Removal of Native Children to Boarding Schools, Illegal Adoption, Legal Adoption and Foster Care left in the hands of White Officials and Non-Native "Caretaker" or "Guardian"; have left whole generations of American Indian People with no clue of how to get their Heritage or Traditional Spirituality back. The Local, State & Federal Agencies over-seeing these types of Child Welfare Organizations have been the problem more than the solution. The
welfare of Native American Indian Children should be left in the hands of the Individual Tribal Governments. Not in the hands of white or other non-Native social workers who seem to Feel the need to place these Native children in situations of getting the child "Assimilated to The Way The Rest Of America Is".
The Lakota & Every Other Tribe across this continent had Raised their Children for Tens of Thousands of Years Before "The Great White Father" decided to teach our people about "Their Idea" of "True Spirituality" and Not to be a "Savage".
Leave The Care Of Native American Indian Children in the Hands of Their Tribal Peoples.
Thomas Greywolf Atkins Chickahominy/Mattaponi/U.S.Citizen
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