SD lawmakers push to actively reunite Indigenous children with families after abuse cases
PIERRE — A bill that would push the state's social service system to actively reunite Native American children and their families in a timely manner, following abuse and neglect case proceedings, passed out of committee Friday morning 9-3.
The bill would further codify into state law current federal law when it comes to the reunification of Native American families. Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Pine Ridge, said at the moment in state law, the Department of Social Services is directed to act with due regard to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
ICWA, established by the federal government in 1978, allows tribes to place Native American children with family members when the child is involved in abuse and neglect proceedings, or to be placed with Native American family members in adoption cases. It is also the topic of a current United Supreme Court case, Haaland v. Brackeen, when it comes to discrimination and race-based adoptions.
Pourier said the bill did not reference ICWA when DSS officials spoke against the proposed legislation.
"We could go on and on and on about federal Indian policy and the ramifications that had on our families," Pourier said. "But we're not. We're talking about active efforts and preventing a child from being taken from the family home. We would like the state to provide active efforts in preventing termination of rights."
In South Dakota, 62% of children in foster care were Native American in 2021, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. However, 13.7% of Native American children make up the state's population. Alaska and North Dakota ranked two and three in disproportionate numbers of Native American children in state foster care.
Jessica Morson spoke in favor of the bill and serves as the chairwoman of the South Dakota coalition for the Indian Child Welfare Act. She said in her work as a social worker for the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, she sees the lack of an active effort when Native American families not living on the reservation are going through abuse and neglect cases.
More:Gov. Kristi Noem, legislators announce $15M effort for Stronger Families scholarship fund
"Right now in the state of South Dakota, they're [DSS] practicing putting that child in foster care before they look for family," she said, adding active efforts can look like DSS calling the tribes for a family tree, so the child can be placed with a grandmother or grandfather.
"This process is hurting families, and it's hurting children at the end of the day," she said.
The committee also heard emotional testimony from Myrna Thompson, the former Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribal Secretary, who spoke about her two nephews taken in the early '70s, before ICWA was enacted, and adopted by non-Native American families. She remembered the day her second nephew, 10 months old at the time, was taken by social services.
"He was taken, because of poverty," she said and continued with her story as Pourier wiped tears from her eye.
More:Push to limit access to gender-affirming care for youth passes in South Dakota House
Thompson said it was the duty of the state and social services to return Native American children quickly to their families.
"We are asking for accountability and stronger efforts for something that should have been occurring all along," she said. "My personal experience and my belief is that Indian families have no reason to suffer heartache and the loss of their children to foster care, adoption or termination of parental rights. We can all do better to reunite families."
The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote, and if successful, will go to the Senate. If successful in a Senate committee and then Senate, the bill will head to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk for final approval.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Bill to actively reunify Native American families after abuse cases moves forward