Profiting off Indigenous Children in South Dakota

Derrin Yellow Robe, 3, stands in his great-grandparents' backyard on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Along with his twin sister and two older sisters, he was taken off the reservation by South Dakota's Department of Social Services in July 2009 and spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family. (Credit: John Poole/NPR)
Derrin Yellow Robe, 3, on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Derrin spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family. (Credit: John Poole/NPR)

Colleen Zickler

Every year in South Dakota, more than 700 Native American children are removed from their homes and placed in the foster care system, mostly on subjective allegations of neglect. Representing only 15% of the state’s child population, Native American children make up more than 50% of those in foster care. Despite federal law requiring states to prioritize extended family and tribal community, 90% are placed with white families. Meanwhile, tribal foster homes remain strangely barren of children. Reports from Native families in the area are eerily reminiscent of historical accounts of boarding school abductions.

Beginning in the late 1800s, thousands of Indigenous children were kidnapped from their families and taken to boarding schools where, in an effort to assimilate them into white Christian culture, the children were forbidden to practice their tribal traditions, forced to speak English and given new, Christian names. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in an attempt to end the atrocities of Native boarding schools but at least 30 states fail to uphold the law and South Dakota is the most egregious offender.

A 2011 report by National Public Radio exposed that South Dakota has a financial incentive for keeping Indigenous children in foster care, citing that the state receives up to $79,000 per child for every year they remain in the system. Additionally, there has been a disturbing rise in pharmaceuticals prescribed to Native foster children, including antipsychotics generally intended for adult use only. An upsurge in suicides has been directly linked to the over-prescription of anti-psychotics to Lakota foster children, many of whom end up imprisoned in exclusively white-staffed psychiatric facilities.

The nine Lakota tribes of South Dakota recently began a campaign to combat the horrors of their disappearing children. The Lakota People’s Law Project is supporting development of an all-Lakota foster care program for Lakota children. They hope to redirect state foster care funding away from corporate interest and bring Lakota children home.

History of Indigenous Boarding Schools in the United States

In order to insure the civilization of the Indians entering into this treaty… they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school.” –Article VII, Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” –Richard Pratt, 1892

A group of Chiricahua Apache children upon entrance at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle School in 1887 and four months later (Credit: John N. Choate/Getty Images)


For over a century, Native American children between the ages of six and sixteen were routinely forcibly removed from their families and transported hundreds of miles to be placed in institutions overtly designed to eliminate their cultures (Schultz). The first official federal Indian boarding schools were opened under the administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the late 19th century. The model for the schools evolved from a prolonged effort of European settlers (mostly Christian missionaries) to force assimilate so-called “savage” Indian children to Euro-Christian standards of a civilized culture through on-reservation educational institutions (PRRAC).

Carlisle, the first off-reservation federal boarding school was founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania by Richard Pratt, a former education director for Apache Indians in a Florida prison. He recognized that the on-reservation institutions’ efforts were being undermined as children frequently ran away or reconnected with traditions while vacationing with family. Pratt’s solution was to keep Indian students far enough away from home that they were seldom able to reunite with their families (PRRAC).

By 1909, there were 25 off-reservation boarding schools across the United States. The schools were poorly funded, relying on students’ manual domestic and agricultural labor to upkeep the facilities, provide much of the teachers’ incomes and feed the students. To avoid returning the students home, the schools would often send Indian children to work as servants for white families over summer vacations (Mannes).

Boarding schools like Carlisle proved to be one of the most effective tools of what has recently been deemed cultural genocide of Indigenous American peoples (Schultz). In addition to being displaced from environments their families had inhabited for thousands of years, students were often harshly punished for speaking their Native languages, bathed in kerosene, forced to cut their hair and forbidden from practicing cultural traditions (Bear). The lack of funding or governmental supervision resulted in rampant physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as thousands of deaths due to malnutrition and disease (PRRAC).

The trauma of boarding schools continues to have a majorly destructive effect on Native American families who have been torn apart and robbed of ancestral culture. Many survivors of the boarding schools (and their descendants) suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and some continue abusive patterns with their own families, having been institutionalized since early childhood with heavy discipline and little care shown from adult figures (Bear).

Despite damning reports in both 1928 and 1969, most off-reservation boarding schools did not close until the early 1980s, after the 1978 enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

Indian Child Welfare Act

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was born from a desperate need for added protections of Native families. A 1969 study found that roughly 25%-35% of American Indian children were separated from their families through programs such as the Indian Adoption Program (which promoted transracial adoption) and by 1973, boarding school enrollment had reached over 60,000 Native students (Mannes).

The initial development of ICWA came from a request in 1968 for assistance from members of the Devil’s Lake Sioux Tribe of North Dakota to the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) regarding the state’s relentless abduction of their children. The AAIA quickly discovered that similarly dire circumstances were occurring in most states with large Indian populations, and the organization fought for over a decade to pass ICWA into federal law in 1978 (Mannes).

The Indian Child Welfare Act requires all states to prioritize placement of Indian children with relatives, tribal members, or other Native Americans (in that order), and to provide preventative services to avoid breaking up Indian families in the first place. The law also requires that states make active efforts to reunite children with their families once they have been taken. The passing of the law itself was a major victory for Native American families but financial incentives, state government corruption, and lack of oversight has made the ICWA difficult to enforce, and as a result 32 states are failing to abide by it. Despite the ICWA ruling, Native kids in the United States are nearly twice as likely to be placed in foster care as children of any other race (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25).

South Dakota Foster Care

In 2011, National Public Radio released a report exposing some disturbing facts about the state foster care program in South Dakota. The article disclosed that although the state’s child population is made up of only 15% Indigenous children, Native kids make up more than 50% of the children in foster care (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25). As of 2011, South Dakota was removing more than 700 Native children from their families every year under allegations of “neglect” and placing more than 90% with non-Native foster families or in private, non-Native institutions (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25). A 2015 Lakota People’s Law Project report revealed that the state is intentionally denying custody to family or tribal members, and failing to reunite children with their families, while actively advocating to keep them in the foster care system or place them with non-Native, mostly white adoptive families (LPLP).

Chart comparing rates of family reunification and exits categorized as "other" for Native American children vs. white children (Credit: Lakota People's Law Project)
Chart comparing rates of family reunification and exits categorized as “other” for Native American children vs. white children (Credit: Lakota People’s Law Project)


“It enrages me, we’re very tight-knit families and cousins are disappearing. Family members are disappearing… It’s kidnapping. That’s how we see it.”  -Peter Lengkeek, Crow Creek tribal council member

The Lakota People’s Law Project report found that between 1998 and 2012, the percentage of children being removed for cases of neglect by South Dakota Department of Social Services (DSS) increased from 75% to 95% (LPLP). Personal accounts from families who have lost children to the DSS reveal how varied and subjectively interpreted the term ‘neglect’ actually is when considering cultural and class differences between caseworkers and families. For instance, a non-Native caseworker might perceive a small household with ten or more inhabitants as neglectful, when it is actually the norm in many Native extended family networks. In some cases petitions for removal are filed by neighbors who hear arguments between family members or perceive the house to be poorly kept, acquaintances who hear unfavorable rumors, or even strangers who witness a parent consuming alcohol in public (LPLP). Although white families with similar circumstances are rarely, if ever held to the same standards, Native families in states such as South Dakota are disturbingly familiar with the routine abduction of their children for minor offenses (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25).

Native Americans are also subject to police discrimination at disproportionate rates. Native women are six times more likely to be criminally prosecuted than white women, and when they are arrested their children are nearly always taken away and denied contact with family members who would want to take them (Schultz).

Families Desperate to Reunite

“How do you undo the blood? How do you undo the genes and everything that I have given to my grandchildren?”   -Ilene Brown, Lakota grandmother

Hearts on the Ground: South Dakota’s Forced Taking of Lakota Children, a video project of the Lakota People’s Law Project.

 In direct violation of the ICWA, South Dakota DSS regularly refuses to prioritize placing children in the custody of family members. Instead, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and adult siblings are forced to navigate an intentionally complex system of obstacles to reunification with their loved ones. In the case of Ilene Brown, whose two infant grandsons were taken after the police were called for a dispute between her son and a white neighbor, the 62-year-old Lakota grandmother retailored her life in an effort to get the babies back. Brown moved off the reservation, found full-time employment, applied for Section 8 housing and attended classes at a local foster care training program, but inevitably was told by DSS that she would need to go through a standard adoption process which can take years to complete. As of 2013, she had not seen her grandsons in four years (LPLP).

Another grandmother, Janice Howe, spent a year and a half on the Crow Creek Reservation fighting to reunite with her four grandchildren after they had been taken by DSS from her daughter on false allegations of drug use. When Howe reached out to the tribe’s Indian Child Welfare Act director, Dave Valandra, he told her there was nothing he could do. Valandra’s job is to make sure that the state upholds the ICWA and places Native children with family members or in Native American foster homes, but despite there being no shortage of accredited Native foster caregivers on the Crow Creek Reservation, most of them remain empty. When pressed about the failure of all of his nearly three dozen cases to abide by the ICWA, Valandra faltered, “Of my cases right now, I think they’re all…right now, the placement of the children right now are…boy that’s, huh” (Sullivan & Walter).

Financial Incentive

“When you have a financing system that pays states to keep kids in care, what’s the incentive to keep kids out of care?” -George Sheldon, federal Administration for Children and Families

There is a reason why the government of South Dakota would keep someone like Dave Valandra as ICWA director. The state relies on keeping its rampant ICWA violations under the radar for financial sustenance. States receive varying levels of federal funding every time they place a child in the foster care system and South Dakota, being one of the poorest states, receives nearly one hundred million dollars a year for social services surrounding foster care (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25). Approximately $63 million of those federal funds are dependent on keeping Native American children in the system (LPLP). The state makes $79,000 per year for every Indian child kept in the system (Coppola).

When former South Dakota Governor William Janklow was asked by NPR about the importance of federal funding for social services he said, “Incredibly important. I mean look, we’re a poor state. We’re not a high income state. We’re like North Dakota without oil. We’re like Nebraska without Omaha and Lincoln.”

Former South Dakota Governor William Janklow (Credit: Rezinate)

Janklow continued, “We don’t have resources. We don’t have wealth. We don’t have high income jobs.” (Sullivan & Walters). Janklow became governor in 1979, despite rape allegations from (and potential implication in the murder of) Jancita Eagle Deer, a young Lakota woman from the Rosebud Indian Reservation (LaDuke). In 1973, during the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee he served as the assistant prosecutor for the state Attorney General. Janklow is quoted as having said “the only good way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leader’s heads and pull the trigger” (Coppola). Clearly Janklow discovered a new way of dealing with the “Indian problem” over his four terms as Governor, as the trend of disappearing Native children was reignited under his governance (Coppola).

 Every step of the process of removal generates revenue for the state, from the first incident report to post adoptive services (LPLP). The state receives thousands of dollars for every child placed in an adoptive home, but if the child is considered “special needs” the incentive is three times as much. So, in a glaringly corrupt yet surprisingly unquestioned strategic move, the state of South Dakota began designating all indigenous children as “special needs” cases more ten years ago (Sullivan & Walters, 10/25). Additionally, prospective families can expect a bonus $13,000 exemption for choosing to adopt a Native child (LPLP).

Private Institutions & Psychiatric Medications

“I didn’t know why they took me from my mom, and why they took me and my brothers to a place with locked doors. I couldn’t get out and tell my mom where I was. I was scared. I thought, ‘Why do they have me in the back of a police car? I didn’t do nothing, my brother didn’t do nothing, why are we here? They took me away from everything I knew and tried to tell me I was a bad girl? No. I did not deserve that. Nobody deserves that. The only people that are bad are the people that do that to the children that don’t deserve it. And I’m telling you, those people are the state of South Dakota Department of Social Services.” -‘Tina’, Lakota survivor of foster care (LPLP, 29)

Children entering the Black Hills campus of Children’s Home Society in South Dakota. (Credit: Laura Sullivan/NPR)

“I cannot count the number of times I have seen children on multiple medications who are really suffering from a broken heart. And the treatment for a broken heart is not another medication.” – David Arrendondo, Child Psychiatrist 

When a child is first taken from their home, they are often brought to a facility for “emergency shelter” services before being placed with a foster family. In most cases the facility is on one of several campus locations belonging to a private corporate nonprofit agency such as Children’s Home Society of South Dakota (CHSSD). One of the largest nonprofits in South Dakota, Children’s Home receives over $50 million a year in federal no-bid contracts for foster care programs (Sullivan & Walters. 10/26). CHSSD also serves as a group home for children with “behavioral or emotional problems”, providing residential psychiatric and intensive care to nearly 2000 children a year (LPLP).

Upon arrival at Children’s Home, kids are often evaluated by psychiatrists who determine behavioral or emotional issues that would potentially warrant psychiatric prescriptions. Parental consent is not required for doctors employed by DSS to prescribe and administer medication to children in the foster care system (LPLP, 17).  Without a caring adult to monitor individual cases, children are regularly misdiagnosed and heavily over-medicated. Between 2012 and 2015 the Government Accountability Office released multiple reports indicating foster children in state care were being prescribed psychotropic drugs at alarming rates (LPLP, 13). A staggering 60% of foster children are prescribed antipsychotics, a class of psychotropic drugs only authorized by the FDA for children with extreme mental illness (such as Schizophrenia, Bipolar and severe Autism), not behavioral problems (De Sa). Side effects of psychotropic drugs can include rapid onset obesity, diabetes, extreme lethargy (making studying nearly impossible), seizures, tics, tremor, brain shrinkage and increased suicide risk (De Sa). 

The compiled statistics indicate a clear financial incentive for state contracted agencies such as CHSSD to over-medicate youth in foster care. Native children are placed on heavily federally subsidized Medicaid upon entry into the South Dakota foster care system (Sullivan) and some are prescribed as many as 9 or 10 psychiatric medications at once despite unknown effects on developing brains (De Sa). Pharmaceutical companies have plead guilty multiple times to illegally marketing second generation antipsychotics as well as Medicare and Medicaid fraud (LPLP, 14). Between 1999 and 2012, the number of “other exits” (exits that are unaccounted for, such as deaths, runaways or placement in institutions such as psychiatric facilities or the Department of Corrections) grew from 6.9% to 36.2%. As of 2012, the disappearances of between 705 and 2,119 Indian children have been classified as “other exits” (LPLP, 17).

In 2002, former banker Dennis Daugaard became the chief operating officer for Children’s Home Society. Promoted to CEO in 2003, Daugaard is credited with reviving CHSSD and transforming it into the largest private foster care program in the state. Also in 2003, Daugaard was elected Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota (Sullivan & Walters).

South Dakota Governor and former Children's Home Society of South Dakota CEO Dennis Daugaard (credit: Kevin Wingert)
South Dakota Governor and former Children’s Home Society of South Dakota CEO Dennis Daugaard (credit: Kevin Wingert)

Under Daugaard’s direction the Children’s Home expanded seven times, receiving twice as much state funding for foster care services. The CEO’s first action was to expand the psych ward at CHSSD, making it possible for the institution to receive Title XIX reimbursement (LPLP).

Dennis Daugaard stepped down from CHSSD before being elected Governor of South Dakota in 2010, only after ensuring that the agency receives every no-bid federal contract subsidizing foster care.  Current South Dakota Lt. Governor Matt Michels served as general counsel for Avera Health prior to being elected alongside Daugaard in 2010. Avera Health is contracted by South Dakota to conduct research for the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatric evaluations for children in state care (LPLP, 17). Despite both politicians’ obvious conflicts of interest, Daugaard and Michels remain in office to this day.

Working for a Solution

The Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) released a report in 2015 outlining corruption in the South Dakota foster care. The report concluded with a list of five actions that would resolve the issues inherent in the current system. LPLP maintains that the only effective solution for keeping Native children with their tribes is for Title IV-E federal funds to be redirected out of private institutions and diverted to tribal foster care programs. 7 out of 9 Lakota tribes have applied for grants through the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act but the grants are not adequate to serve their needs and do not solve the fundamental issue of racial discrimination in assessment and placement practices (LPLP, 25). 


“They try to come home. They’ll always come home. They should have never left here.” – Diane Garreau, Cheyenne River reservation social worker

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -Lilla Watson (for Queensland Aboriginal activists)

Despite over one hundred years of cultural genocide disguised as education and care, the Lakota Sioux nations in South Dakota continue to resiliently fight the systems that oppress them. The Lakota People’s Law Project works to constantly expose the disturbing reality of families torn apart, generations of heartbreak and abuse for state profits. The Lakota people are all too familiar with fighting for survival against such insurmountable odds. The solution to their liberation lies in public attention for their struggle, and the recognition of all Americans that our struggles are bound together.


Click this link to donate to Lakota People's Law Project!!!!
Click this link to donate to Lakota People’s Law Project!!!!


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