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Cash for Kidnapping in South Dakota? Yeah, You Read That Right.

John Poole/NPR

I climbed into my car after work several weeks ago, and tuned into NPR during my commute home. Austin’s rush hour traffic is pretty brutal, so I had a good forty-five minutes alone with the programming of the hour, and by the time I arrived at our door, I was floored, furious and crying. I’d listened to this story on All Things Considered. I highly recommend you click through and listen to it, too (hint: I also give my summary, and my interview with the story’s reporter, below). It’s only 22 minutes long, and if you use headphones, you can still look like you’re working (except for the whole crying thing).

 Here’s what’s going on. Brace yourselves for a little post-Thanksgiving pilgrim reality check:

In 1978, after many decades during which the American government removed Native American children from their families and homes, relocated them into boarding “schools” where their hair was cut, their belongings confiscated and their names changed, the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted. It says that native children should not be removed from their relatives or tribes.

Yet today, in South Dakota, over 50% of the children in foster care are Native American, despite the fact that native children make up only 15% of the child population in the state. And nine out of ten of these children are placed in homes hours from their own, not in native care. While social services says that they want, and try, to place native kids in native homes, the facts reveal a very different truth: copious numbers of licensed native care providers have never had a child placed in their care. Pine Ridge reservation alone currently has twenty empty native care homes.

 So you have to wonder: what’s the deal? Why are so many native kids being placed in the foster care system? And, um, why are they not being placed in homes with relatives, or at least other members of their community who are registered to care for them? It gets worse, too; NPR’s story highlights a family who, like many others, were the victims of what is essentially kidnapping. Their kids were removed from their home without warning or cause. In the case of Janice How, she received a phone call from social services saying that her daughter was going to be arrested for drugs (although she’d shown no sign of drug use, and had no history or record of using drugs), and that How’s grandchildren were being removed from their home. The children were removed, but no one ever showed up to arrest her daughter. The family’s battle to get their children back was a long one. This account is echoed many times over by families across How’s reservation, and others, and many families still have not been able to regain custody of their children. It appears that, despite changes in the law dating thirty years back, the removal of native children from their families, and from their cultures, is still going strong today.

In South Dakota’s case, the state receives money from the federal government for every kid in foster care. Since native kids are all dubbed ‘special needs’ by the system, they’re worth more. In total, South Dakota gets almost 100 million dollars per year from the federal government as a result of their foster care counts. That’s a lot of money, especially for a very poor state. Financial incentives are at the heart of this problem. And people’s lives—children’s lives, parents lives, the lives of communities that have never, ever had a fair shake since white people first showed up on their land—are being ruined because of it.

Inspired by NPR journalist Laura Sullivan’s bold reporting on this story, the Lakota People’s Law Project is working on addressing this issue from a legal standpoint by preparing to file a Federal civil law suit against the state of South Dakota. I, for one, have a hard time hearing stuff like this and just sitting there with my anger and nothing to do about the situation. Supporting this organization is something that we can do that makes a difference.

I’m also the type of person who gets curious about how a story like this—one that features some of our society’s most disempowered populations—comes to the national stage. I contacted NPR and scored an interview with Sullivan—who’s also a mom— so I could ask her my questions about reporting this story, which is especially difficult to listen to all the way through when you have kids at home of your own. I wanted to know what it was like for her to investigate and compile a story as painful, and provocative, as this one.

Here’s what she had to say:

Taylor: How did you first hear about the situation in South Dakota? What brought this to your attention, and what made you want to investigate this story?

Laura Sullivan: A few years ago, I did a series about the high incidents of rape of Native American women, and in the process of that reporting, I met a lot of people on South Dakota’s reservations. Later, I got a call from one of them describing the high number of Native American children in South Dakota’s foster care system – and in other states’ foster care systems. I was working on another project at the time, so put it on the back burner – meaning I stuck a note about it on my cubical wall. From time to time I would look at it and think, I really want to look into that. Then one day I moved some other stuff aside and just jumped right in. It was originally supposed to be a story about many states struggling with this issue, but the dynamics in South Dakota were so deep, my producer Amy Walters and I decided we had to get to the bottom of it.

Taylor: Does a story like this affect you differently as a parent? Does your being a mom influence the way that you report? Are there any unique challenges that being a parent presents for you in reporting a story like this (emotional involvement, etc)?

Laura Sullivan: I think being a parent, or being around children you are related to, changes your outlook, no matter what your profession. I think in this case it may have given me more of an awareness of how desperate some of these parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents were to gain custody of the children that are part of their families. It gave me appreciation of their sadness and their frustration. It also gave us a lot to talk about, which is always wonderful as a reporter –when you can connect with people on a human level. 

Taylor:  How has your own perspective or experience (in any area of your life-- from the professional to the parenting to the personal) changed after reporting this story?

Laura Sullivan: It’s just made me appreciative of NPR for giving me so much time to work on a project like this. It’s a tough world for media organizations these days, so it’s been a real luxury to be able to spend months digging through documents and interviewing people all over South Dakota.

(So, readers— supporting NPR has far-reaching benefits, as well… I recently heard that the ACLU in South Dakota has taken notice because of this story, too. ‘Tis the season: get your giving on and make the world a better place!).

What are your reactions upon hearing this story? Are you as shocked as I was that this kind of thing is still taking place in America today? Does being a parent make you feel closer to the families affected by the situation? I’m looking forward to reading your comments and thoughts on this.

PS. A friend of mine runs a great organization-- RISE Magazine-- that supports parents (from a wide variety of backgrounds) whose kids are in the foster care system. They do a lot of important advocacy work, and are totally worth checking out and supporting if you're interested in, or passionate about, these issues!

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