South Dakota Profits When Native Kids Get Thrown Into Foster Care

Nearly 700 Native American children in the state are being removed from their homes every year.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 27, 2011

A year-long NPR News investigation has found that nearly 700 Native American children in South Dakota are being removed from their homes every year.

Sometimes the removals happen under very questionable circumstances. And the problem isn’t isolated to just one state; Native children are overrepresented in the foster care systems of dozens of others — including Washington, Idaho, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law made clear that — except in only rare circumstances –Native American children whose homes are deemed unfit must be placed with their relatives or tribes.

But 32 states are failing to abide by the act in one way or another, and, the NPR investigation has found, nowhere is that more apparent than in South Dakota.

In South Dakota, Native American children make up less than 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half of the children in foster care. Nearly 90 percent of them are in non-native homes or group homes, according to analysis of state records.

State officials say they’re doing what’s in the best interest of the children, but the NPR investigation found the state does have a financial incentive to remove kids form their home. Here’s why:

The state receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every child it takes from a family, and in some cases the state gets even more money if the child is Native American. The result is that South Dakota is now removing children at a rate higher than the vast majority of other states in the country. …

Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids. Among them is Children’s Home Society, the state’s largest foster care provider, which has close ties with top government officials. It used to be run by South Dakota’s Gov. Dennis Daugard. An NPR investigation has found that Daugard was on the group’s payroll while he was lieutenant governor — and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. It’s an unusual relationship highlighting the powerful role money and politics play in South Dakota’s foster care system.

Less than 12 percent of Native American children in South Dakota foster care had been physically or sexually abused in their homes, below the national average. The state says parents have "neglected" their children, but that’s a subjective term.

All this sound eerily familiar?

Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act because Native American children were being taken and sent to boarding schools in a deliberate effort to wash away their indigenous heritage.

Read the complete first part of NPR’s year-long investigation on