Recapping the ICWA Summit

I recently spent most of May 15-17 attending the Great Plains ICWA Summit held in Rapid City.  I was there for almost the entirety of the Summit, but may have missed a few things due to side conversations.  I came away with a number of thoughts which are not necessarily connected.  I think it best to simply highlight some of them briefly in a bullet-point list without trying to go into too much depth at this time about any of them.  Many could be worthy of their own post, but constraints on my time will prevent that from occurring in the immediate future with regard to most of them.

  • Where was the State?  One of the main stories to come out of the event was that the State of South Dakota did not send any representation to the summit.  The State has attempted to deflect criticism by saying that it was not invited until about a week before the summit and could not make it work.  While there may be a grain of truth to that excuse, I am not really buying it.  What I know is that people from the BIA, including Secretary Washburn himself, made contact with the State at the level of the Governor’s office and came away with the impression that the State was not interested in participating.  I also know that I learned about the planning of the Summit via a story in the Rapid City Journal in February, posted about it initially on February 15, and posted the correct date on April 4.  State officials say that they are interested in working with tribes to make improvements, and I think that the coming months will provide them with an opportunity to prove as such by their actions.  I personally would like to see the State commit to regular and ongoing meetings with the purpose of improving the child welfare system.
  • Where were the tribal leaders?  The Summit was three days long.  The first day consisted almost entirely of stories and speeches by tribal leaders and members.  Every tribe had high-level leaders there for the first day.  The next two days were intended to focus on information and potential solutions.  But, the number of tribal leaders present continually declined as the event went on, to the point that some tribes did not have any elected leaders present by Friday afternoon.  One audience member frustratedly asked if anyone was still present from her tribe – no one was.  In the tribal leaders’ defense, there was also a meeting regarding the Keystone XL pipeline that a number of leaders attended, as well as possibly other events that I don’t know very much about.  For example, my understanding is that OST President Brewer was meeting with Governor Daugaard on Friday, but not regarding the topic of the Summit.
  • According to Oglala Sioux Tribal President Brewer, the cameras of KOLC-TV were turned away at the start of the event.  Thankfully, they were allowed in shortly thereafter.  I believe the event was streamed live, although I don’t know that for sure.  I was also told by one of the workers for KOLC that the event would eventually be posted to their website.
  • Completely tribal systems will still be criticized.  On the third day of the Summit, LOWO, the child welfare program operated by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, presented about their system, which is run entirely by tribal entities.  Several speakers criticized LOWO and the OST Courts for removing children and essentially acting like the State.  I also noted that representatives of LOWO and the ONTRAC program cited the exact same kinds of problems that I hear from State workers, namely that they lack the level of funding and resources needed to provide the level of services that they would like to provide.
  • Towards the end of the Summit, I was “called out” so to speak by Phyllis Young, a rather vocal representative from Standing Rock.  There is a decent chance that I will post more on this later, but want to try to put the event in context at the moment, as a video of me during this exchange has already been posted to Youtube.  I had gone to talk to Jesse Taken Alive, who acted as the primary representative for Standing Rock during most of the Summit, earlier in the day, and Ms. Young happened to be in the area.  I had concerns that they may have been mislead by members of the Lakota People’s Law Project about just how much money the tribes might be able to get from the federal government.  They regularly say that South Dakota gets 100 million dollars to support foster care, but the Title IV-E funds that many tribes want to go directly to them only amount to about 11.5 million of the state budget (possibly plus or minus a few million at this point as I have 2010 data).  Ms. Young seemingly did not like that I pointed out this fact.  I also note that the description of the Youtube video suggests that I was “a spy in the room for the State of South Dakota.”  First, I’m not sure why one would have to spy on a public gathering of hundreds of people that was being streamed online.  Second, I’m self-employed, and lost money due to the three days I took off from work so I could attend the summit.  The description of the Youtube video also says that “He was outright rude to those he interacted with during his time here.”  I challenge the essentially anonymous video poster to tell me who.  The only people who I found I was not able to have a civil discourse with were Phyllis Young and Daniel Sheehan, who stormed off about a minute into my conversation with him.  I had multiple mutually respectful discussions with Ms. Young’s fellow council member Jesse Taken Alive, who found me in the crowd and shook my hand before leaving the Summit on Friday afternoon.  I also had cordial and sometimes lengthy conversations with several ICWA directors, several tribal leaders, Laura Sullivan, Representative Kevin Killer, Judge B.J. Jones, several of the presenters, several people who were there to tell their personal stories, and several other members of the Lakota People’s Law Project, including Randolfo Pozos and Dan Nelson.  Several Native individuals also made a point of approaching me following my interaction with Ms. Young.  They thanked me for being there and apologized for Ms. Young’s behavior, which was not representative of the respectful traditions of their culture.
  • I came away from the Summit with a number of idea for improvements and things that should probably be looked into further.  For example:
    • A court-monitoring program, such as the one done by QUICWA in Hennepin County, Minnesota, could provide an impetus to improve court procedures.  It would probably be necessary to amend SDCL 26-7A-36, which calls for closed hearings, in order to make this work.  I have previously called for this statute to be amended.
    • I heard several stories of problems and delays for Native people who tried to become licensed foster care providers.  It may be worthwhile to examine our foster care licensing system with an eye towards being able to quickly license more Native homes.
    • Some tribal court judges working on reservations where DSS provides services feel that their hands were tied in some respects when it came to ordering a specific placement for a child under their jurisdiction.  It may be worthwhile to examine the relationship between DSS and the tribal courts in this context.
    • The family is traditionally strong in our South Dakota tribal cultures.  I heard a few times that if a child’s mother has three sisters, then the child has four mothers.  With this in mind, it may be worth exploring policy changes that would help children maintain connections to family members, even if they cannot go live with a family member.
    • There are improvements that I believe could be made to the child welfare system as a whole.  For example, appointing attorneys for the parents and the child as soon as possible rather than at the first hearing after a petition has been filed, which is often 30 to 60 days after a child has been removed.  Children and parents would also benefit from more frequent visitation than the one time per week that is typical in Rapid City.

***Correction:  My original post indicated that the Lakota People’s Law Project “regularly say[s] that South Dakota gets 100 million dollars for Indian children.”  For the sake of accuracy, I have amended this to read “South Dakota gets 100 million dollars to support foster care.”  These are obviously different claims that should not be conflated.  To the best of my knowledge, the stronger of these claims has never been made by the Lakota People’s Law Project, although I have heard it made by others.