Local nonprofit enlists help of UCSC interns to combat Native American exploitation
“In the 1880s, under a U.S. government policy of forced assimilation, [Lakota] children as young as 5 years old were removed from their homes, shipped to boarding schools, and instructed in the ways of white culture,” reads a passage on lakotalaw.org, the website for the Lakota Child Rescue Project (LCRP).
A modern-day Robin Hood for many Lakota people—the indigenous people of the Great Plains—the organization is currently compiling a federal civil rights lawsuit in favor of the Great Sioux Nation.
Daniel Sheehan, president of the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Romero Institute (RI) and general counsel for the LCRP, has been hard at work combating the placement of thousands of Lakota children into foster homes in South Dakota, which he says has been a continuous issue for the past 150 years. A June Good Times article, titled “A Conversation with Daniel Sheehan,” discussed Sheehan’s reputation for fighting injustices and working with landmark court cases. The article also touched on a course he taught at UC Santa Cruz last spring titled “The Trajectory of Justice: Eight Cases that Changed America,” which detailed his work on the Iran-Contra Affair and many other cases.
Six UC Santa Cruz students were particularly inspired by the course, and went on to become interns for RI. They are now playing a major role in collecting data for the LCRP. “They are so passionate, so committed, and so positive,” says Sara Nelson, vice president and executive director for RI. “These young researchers are key … [and] have been very important in unveiling new information.”
The LCRP’s goal is to draft an amendment to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was originally passed in 1978 in an effort to uphold the rights of Native American children by preventing states to place them into non-Native American foster homes. The ICWA states that, except in extremely rare cases, state officials are mandated to make every effort possible to keep children together with their Native neighbors or relatives. According to an audit by the United States Government Accountability Office 2005, however, “32 of 51 state reports raised some concerns about ICWA implementation.” According to state records, 90 percent of Native American kids in foster care are in non-Native homes or group care.
After digging up these statistics, Sheehan and the interns say they faced the question, “Why has keeping Native American families together been such a difficult task for state governments?”
The term “neglect” appears frequently throughout the state’s justifications, says Gabriel Clark, community liaison and archive committee chairman for the RI. He believes “neglect” is a subjective term, and that its meaning is being broadened. National Public Radio (NPR), who presented a three-part series on Native American children in the foster care system in October 2011, describes that states, by maintaining their own bases for acceptable living standards, will often deem a Native child “neglected” as a reflection of poverty or Native tradition.
These children have been seized from their families by the state at a reported rate of about 700 children per year. One case featured on both the LCRP’s website and in NPR’s report describes how “one afternoon in 2008, Janice Howe—a Dakota Indian—waited at the bus stop for her grandchildren to come home from school. They never arrived. The reason stated in the case file: a ‘rumor’ that Janice’s daughter, Erin Yellow Robe, had been using drugs. She hadn’t.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, South Dakota is home to the three counties with the nation’s highest poverty rate, and four of the top 10. And fostering kids, Clark says, gains states access to abundant federal funding.
The NPR report explains that extra monetary allotments are awarded to the state for confiscated children who also have “special needs.” And about 10 years ago, it says, “South Dakota deemed all Native American kids ‘special needs.’” Once a child is under state control and is determined to have “special needs,” explains Clark, the government can also decide to put them on medication.
Nelson cites three other details that she says the LCRP intern team has de-coded thus far as indicators of state motivation for putting Native American children in foster care. Their studies, Nelson says, show a strong correlation between a rise in federally supplied state income in South Dakota, an increase in federal funding for pharmaceuticals, and a drastic increase in the number of children being sent to foster care.
“We’re working so that tribes will have their own child and family services organization to replace the South Dakota Department of Social Services,” says Nelson. “We’ve [now] found that some things, like pharmaceutical testing, are not only happening to Lakota kids, but to all foster kids.”
Randy Pozos, consultant on publications and public education for RI, expresses the organization’s great need for more support and funding: currently, the RI is working on a class action federal lawsuit—which they hope to file this Fall—on behalf of the Lakota people and other bands of the Great Sioux Nation.
The RI and LCRP teams say they are grateful for the help they’ve gained from their Santa Cruz interns, as well as from the volunteer fundraising committee that has come together throughout the duration of the fight. “A community like Santa Cruz, they get it,” says Nelson. “It’s all about shifting the consciousness toward the light and away from exploitative and oppressive thought processes and actions.”
As for the interns, Nelson remarks, “what’s really exciting about this … is that they can see that they’re making history.”
For more information, visit lakotalaw.org.