Why Indian Children Are Being Removed – What the Affidavits Say

Allegations have flown in recent years that the South Dakota Department of Social Services is running roughshod over the Native community, taking Indian children from their parents without reason so it can cash in on huge sums of federal money.  I have discussed the money part in the past, and have been able to show using objective numbers that some of these allegations were just plain lies when it came to the monetary amount.  However, due to confidentiality laws that prevent the release of information regarding particular cases, discussions about why Indian children were being removed have been limited largely to anecdotes and statistical evidence.

The discovery produced as part of the Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnick case has provided a rare opportunity to see additional information that is not usually available.  In particular, redacted copies of ICWA Affidavits filed at the beginning of 45 child abuse and neglect cases are publicly available.  These affidavits usually contain information about why the children were initially removed from their parents’ care.  Even with the names redacted, it is usually possible to get a very good idea of the situation being described.  Linked below are the affidavits in full, as well as a document I created that provides only the most relevant language from each case and allows for much more concise reading.

It should be noted that these cases were selected by the Plaintiffs out of more than 100 essentially random ICWA cases they got transcripts for.  As such, this sample almost certainly does not purposefully exclude cases where the State had a weak case.  I suspect these cases are a fairly representative sample of Pennington County ICWA cases in recent years, with the possible exception that sexual abuse cases may have been excluded.

In my opinion, the affidavits make it fairly clear that DSS is not initially removing children willy-nilly without reason, or often for culturally biased reasons like being poor. As they provide information about only the earliest part of the case, they cannot provide significant insight into how cases are handled after children come into care.  Here are some tidbits of information that can be gleaned from the affidavits.  Percentages could vary slightly depending on how information is coded.

  • There are affidavits for 45 cases.  These 45 cases involved at least 97 children.
  • The court file numbers suggest that there were at least 1,320  temporary emergency custody or abuse and neglect cases filed in Pennington County in 2010.
  • Alcohol was a factor in 56% of removals.
  • Drugs other than alcohol were a factor in 20% of removals, although 66% of cases involving drugs also involved alcohol.
  • A parent was arrested at the time of removal in at least 29% of the cases.  This number is likely substantially higher, because many affidavits describe circumstances that could lead to arrest but are not clear about whether the parent was arrested.
  • Domestic violence was a factor in 22% of removals.  In 60% of cases involving domestic violence, alcohol was also involved.
  • Physical abuse was a factor in 9% of removals.
  • The location of at least one parent was initially unknown 42% of the time.
  • At least one parent was known to be incarcerated 13% of the time.
  • Two cases involved relatives caring for the child who would not or could not continue to do so.
  • Two cases involved parents simply giving up their children.
  • Only one case cited a dirty home as part of the reason for removal.
  • Sexual abuse was not cited as a reason for removal in any of the affidavits.  This may be because those cases were excluded by the Plaintiffs due to their especially sensitive nature.  However, it could also be that no such case made it into the sample because these cases make up a small fraction of abuse and neglect cases.