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Federal officials met with South Dakota's nine Sioux tribes yesterday. They were beginning a three-day summit in Rapid City. This meeting has been a year in the making. It's an effort to address long-standing concerns over the high number of Native American children that the state places in non-Native foster homes. Families testified about alleged violations by South Dakota under the Indian Child Welfare Act. There was only one problem: the state didn't show up.
NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in a Native American language)
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The night before the conference started, buses of tribal members from across South Dakota filed in to a hotel banquet room and gathered for a prayer dinner.
No one could remember the last time all nine Sioux tribes came together for such a gathering. Many at the dinner said they were eager to sit down with state officials and solve what they see as a growing problem: The high rate of Native children in white foster homes. The state is facing a federal lawsuit and congressional scrutiny over the issue.
Phyllis Young is a council member with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
PHYLLIS YOUNG: Those children have a right to their grandmothers and extended families.
SULLIVAN: Federal law agrees. The Indian Child Welfare Act says if children have to be removed from their parents, they must be placed with relatives, tribal members or Native American foster homes, except in unusual circumstances. State records show almost nine out of 10 native kids are placed in non-native homes.
(SOUNDBITE OF A DRUMMING)
SULLIVAN: The next morning the summit got underway
(SOUNDBITE OF A DRUMMING)
SULLIVAN: Top officials from Washington took their seats. The secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, staffers from three Members of Congress and two trial attorneys from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights division. But the seats for South Dakota state officials were empty.
Some tribal leaders wondered if maybe they were just late. They began introductions.
CYRIL SCOTT: My name is Cyril Scott. I come from Rosebud, I am the tribal president. What I expect to achieve from this conference is unity, to save our children...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Crow Creek Sioux Indian Tribe. What I hope to see here as much as answers and solutions (unintelligible) our people, it's time to act...
SULLIVAN: By the time they had finished, it was clear, no one from the state or South Dakota's Department of Social Services was coming. In a statement, the department told NPR that it had not been invited to the conference, and that it had only learned details about it last week.
Kevin Washburn is the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs who came from Washington. He said that is not his recollection.
KEVIN WASHBURN: I spoke with the governor and asked that we - my office asked his office to attend and he wasn't able to be here. And so, we called the chief justice and that they didn't - you know, were not able to attend either. So we reached out at very high levels, to the state, because this is, indeed, a summit. Seemed like we should be reaching the very highest levels of the state and we weren't able to get them to be here.
SULLIVAN: Washburn said that's a problem.
WASHBURN: There's some disagreements between the state and the tribes. And it seems like a dysfunctional relationship that's developed. And it's hard to find the solutions when only the tribes have come to talk.
SULLIVAN: Tribal leaders say they wanted to talk to the state about running their own social service programs. The federal government sends money to states every time they place a child in foster care. Tribal leaders say that money should be given to them, so that they can take care of their own children and ensure they are placed in Indian homes.
The state of North Dakota actually sent several state lawmakers and the state's U.S. attorney, just to sit in. That didn't surprise Terry Yellow Fat, who runs child welfare for Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles both North and South Dakota.
TERRY YELLOW FAT: Oh, I have quite a few cases up there too. But they're more cooperative. They call me immediately, email me and they're right on the phone. But they also really watch themselves, also, where I do not get that from South Dakota.
SULLIVAN: State officials have said in the past that they are working to find more Native foster homes and always try to locate family members first. Tribal and federal officials hope they can hold the state to that promise, even if they don't want to talk about in person.
Laura Sullivan. NPR News. Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.