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SD: Gov. Daugaard voices support of tribal foster care proposal

July 19, 2013

The Argus Leader - July 18, 2013

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying he supports tribal efforts in this state to run their own child welfare and foster care services.

In the letter dated Wednesday, Daugaard said he understands that the tribes might ask Sebelius for federal dollars to be sent directly to them to administer those services to their members.

“I want you to know that I am fully in support of these efforts, and I ask you to favorably consider the requests of any South Dakota tribe,” the governor wrote.

The letter is a positive sign to Danny Sheehan, chief counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, a nonprofit that has provided expertise to the tribes since 2006 on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Sheehan’s group and many Lakota and Dakota have charged South Dakota’s Department of Social Services with routinely and illegally placing Native American children with non-Native foster parents.

“I view this as a very major, positive development,” Sheehan said Thursday. “I think this should accelerate matters to the good.”

Following a report by National Public Radio in 2011, concern had been building among the tribes that the Department of Social Services had repeatedly violated ICWA, a law enacted in 1978 to try to preserve Native American culture by ensuring that tribal children taken by social workers are placed in Native American foster homes.

In March, the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes sued the state in federal court over temporary custody proceedings, alleging a systematic violation of due process rights that keeps tribal children in foster care unnecessarily.

That action was followed by a conference in May in Rapid City attended by Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Since then, the tribes have focused increasingly on how to wrest federal funding from South Dakota and create tribally run foster care systems.

Sheehan thinks as much as $56 million now is funneled through the state that tribes could be allowed to access directly. The governor’s spokesman, Tony Venhuizen, said he couldn’t confirm that figure.

In his letter, Daugaard noted that the state has agreements with four of nine tribes to provide child welfare or foster care services. That alllows the tribes, working with the state, to access federal Title IV-E dollars from the Social Security Act to pay for foster care placement and administrative costs.

Many of the tribes are talking now about trying to access those dollars directly without them being funneled through the state, and Daugaard noted that the state has supported a grant application from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to do that very thing.

He also advised Sebelius that the state has tried to inform tribal leaders about the opportunity to administer their own programs and how to do that. Venhuizen said tribes have to understand that running these programs isn’t a simple process.

“There are a lot of requirements and things that have to be done,” he said. “But there are tribes that do things like this. It is certainly possible.”

Sheehan said he hopes Daugaard’s letter also suggests a willingness on the governor’s part to push for a review of all cases in which Native children find themselves in non-Native group homes or individual foster homes, or have been transferred by DSS to other state agencies.

“These cases should be reviewed, perhaps by an outside appointed special master,” Sheehan said. “My position, and that of tribes ... is that we would like to have some process where careful steps are taken to review each of these kinds of placements in a non-Native foster care setting so we can undo those that are reasonable to undo.”

Venhuizen didn’t address that. But he did say that the governor’s letter should be interpreted as meaning Daugaard wants to work with the tribes on child welfare issues, at least as it pertains to accessing direct government funding.

“One might think that this is something the state might oppose,” Venhuizen said. “In this case, that is an incorrect assumption."

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