Last Real Indians

Taking Our Children Back

By : Natalie Stites

Recently, there has been media coverage of the State of South Dakota taking Native American children out of their homes. This breaks up families already facing atrocious social conditions. However, the initial National Public Radio series and subsequent coverage do not anchor their story, first and foremost, in the experiences of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota children. Instead, elaborate federal funding schema, sinister state social workers, and victimized Indian adults are used to paint a familiar story about the Indigenous in South Dakota, as well as the nine reservations that pre-date the State. While the media replays the same ol’ stereotypes, many children are crying out in the homelands for safety, and love.

Further complicating the story of our children in crisis is confidentiality, which rightfully prevents social service agencies from mounting a public defense of decisions they’ve made in individual cases. Thus, only a bit of the overall story emerges through the media lens gazing upon the lives of Indigenous children in South Dakota. This is framed as the state’s failure to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. Back in 1978, and decades before, a third of Native children were being yanked from their homes and adopted out. Today, as the American Civil Liberties Union collects individual case information in South Dakota, the courts will be determining legal meaning of ICWA compliance. Yet, what does this all mean for the children? Especially the children growing into adolescents and adults while litigation moves at its glacial and costly pace?

Wait. Wasn’t the ICWA supposed to decrease out-of-home placement for our children and decrease abuse and neglect? No. Actually, the ICWA is intended to “protect Indian children from arbitrary removal from their families and tribal affiliations by establishing procedures to insure that measures to prevent the breakup of Indian families are followed in child custody proceedings.” Indeed, ICWA is not a salve for Native children and their families because no law can be. Still, the question remains: are Indian children in the system for arbitrary reasons? Assuming they ever were?

Today, the supermajority of abuse and neglect cases involving Lakota, Dakota or Nakota children are the result of actions or omissions by parents that have harmed or threaten to harm their children. Sometimes these actions and omissions fall short of crimes, but sometimes they include a crime. Yes, unsavory and unlawful reasons are sometimes used to take children away from their homes and this disproportionately affects racial minorities; but there are many circumstances facing Native children that are not going to be shared with the press.

There are thousands of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota children experiencing abuse and neglect. For all of the tribes, there are several groups of abused and neglected children to account for: children in the custody of a state or tribal social services agency and adjudicated in tribal courts while living on the reservations; children in the custody of DSS, adjudicated in a South Dakota court and living off reservations; children in the custody of a state system, living off the reservation and outside South Dakota; children whose parents or guardians failure to act do not rise to the legal standard of abuse and neglect upon investigation by tribal or state authorities; and finally, the abused and neglected children who are never involved in the system at all. Some of these are formal ICWA cases and some are not. The children of deceased, divorced, ill, incarcerated, poor or addicted parents are all at a higher risk for violence in their lives and exposure to the system.

Not to mention, there are numerous Lakota, Dakota and Nakota youth in and out of juvenile correctional facilities administered by states or tribes, which often take over the intermittent custody of these same groups of kids as they age into adolescence. Why the separate groups of children in crisis? In whose interests? Certainly, these categories are not in the children’s interests.

More American Indian children continue to be placed in foster care than white children in South Dakota: 53% percent of the children in foster care are American Indian, while American Indians are less than 10% of the general population in the state. However, those are children blessed or lucky enough to survive infancy: American Indian infants account for 18% of all births but 36% of all infant deaths in the state. Rates of poverty, health outcomes, education outcomes and incarceration are similarly “disproportionate.” Moreover, such “disproportionality” occurs in African American and Latina/o populations across the country as well. Based on population alone, there should be a lot less children of color and a lot more white children in the system in South Dakota and throughout the country.

Native children and their families have every right to be hostile and suspicious of the system on or off the reservations, and almost no one emerges better for the experience- be it from foster care, adoption, jails, prisons, counseling, hospitals or treatment facilities. Imposed, traditionally “white” institutions and their methods do not work for Indigenous people even as more Natives now, more than ever, seek the education and credentials to navigate these institutions and practices. More often than not, service providers within these systems are also suffering from vicarious trauma, burnout, and fatigue and occasionally, are abusers themselves who victimize the children once again.

Regardless of whether a child is in the system or not: once a child is victimized by violence, the likelihood of it happening again goes up. Violence is insidious, even contagious. Once a second victimization happens, it begins to increase exponentially: our children can become victims over and over again into adulthood. Over a third of women raped today were also sexually assaulted as children. Sadly, all too often, abused and neglected children become perpetrators themselves, as adolescents and as adults.

The fact remains that parenting, indeed the family itself, was targeted by the United States and its agents to save the child and kill the Indian (after outright killing Indians proved too unpopular and expensive), attempting to coerce tribal people into the mainstream. It hasn’t worked out that way though, we are still here. There are many complex reasons for the conditions facing the children today: lack of compassion, colonization, epigenetics, grief, violence, the feminization of poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, organized sexual abuse, unemployment, mental illness, addiction, racism, cultural oppression. It is the aggregate or “weathering” of these various conditions that result in terrible life outcomes for Indigenous peoples. These are the roots of our current situation.

However, try explaining this to the 5 year old boy who hasn’t eaten a meal in two days, or a beaten 8 year old girl caring for an infant and a toddler like she’s the parent, or a 15 year old youth who faces and eventually joins his addicted parents and the drunken strangers they bring home to party every night. Try explaining to these children why family members, social workers, policymakers, police, courts, schools, health care providers cannot protect them, even after their own parents fail them, or abandon them, or hurt them. Who takes responsibility for this? We must.

How can the children and youth be protected? The evidence is out there. It is here. It is in our Way of Life, our customs, and our traditions. It is in our science, it is in our experience, it is our language. We must take control. Insomuch as control is an illusion – it is still a crucial point. We must regard ourselves as having the power, resources and ability to change this situation. It is hard work and there are no quick fixes. Empowering youth and children is most critical to this effort, in concert with elders, speakers of the language, spiritual leaders and service providers. The children must be our number one priority. Not adults. Not the system.

Educate yourself and others about parenting, violence and health. Join your local parent and family organizations. Join national advocacy organizations like the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Pay your child support. Become a foster parent. Demand accountability from your governments and services. Run for office on a children first platform. Form a community organization for the protection of children. Accept children and youth in crisis into your home. Watch your own and other’s kids. Take in more relatives. Become a mentor. Listen. Adopt. Report abuse and neglect to the local authorities. Stop violence. Decolonize. Change. Remember. Protest. Organize. Indigenize. Speak out. Pray for the children every day. Do something.

Right now, too many adults are failing in their duties to Lakota, Dakota and Nakota children who deserve so much better than the status quo. The children don’t care about compliance with a federal law, they care about being safe and loved. The children are our future. Without them, we will cease to exist as Indigenous nations.

Wakanyeja Ki Blehiciyapo! Children, Take Courage!