Children can quickly lose interest in you when you’re helping them stack blocks, but also when you’re speaking with their grandmother about why she’s caring for them.
They fall asleep in her arms as you witness her choke up, flashing back to when she and her younger brothers were split as young siblings at a child protective services office.
In that moment, you understand why a young grandmother is protecting her eight grandchildren from the child welfare system, while their mom struggles with addiction and homelessness. Without grandma, the siblings could be split between other relatives or foster homes and could have fractured ties in the future, like she does with her own.
Throughout the last six months, reporters for the Argus Leader and South Dakota Searchlight partnered to spend hundreds of hours traveling across the state to learn about the issues Native families and children face inside South Dakota’s child welfare system. Native American children accounted for nearly 74% of the foster care system at the end of fiscal year 2023 — despite accounting for only 13% of the state’s overall child population.
We sat in a living room, watching as a mother agonized about having her parental rights terminated and failing her daughters. We ate buffalo brisket in a church hall as a group of Cheyenne River Sioux grandmothers explained their dream to create a holistic service option that kept families intact while parents sought treatment for substance abuse. We were welcomed into homes and workspaces to learn and watch how parents — biological or adopted — try to do what’s best for their children with love and care.
We’ve read dozens of studies on the impact of removing Native children from their culture and communities. We’ve made phone calls and emails to experts across the U.S., who deal regularly with the child welfare system. We read books to understand how child welfare funding works. We attended a two-day conference on child maltreatment and how South Dakota continues to combat it through cultural pathways, new federal policies and more.
After weeks of asking, we were granted a rare hour-long sitdown interview with Gov. Kristi Noem, Department of Social Services Secretary Matt Althoff and Department of Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute in Pierre.
The resulting project, The Lost Children, examines why 45 years after the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, South Dakota continues to have one of the highest rates of Native child removal in the nation.
We were drawn to the story after lawmakers killed three bills during the 2023 legislative session that would’ve enshrined portions of the federal ICWA law into state law and created a task force to examine the issues Native children face in the child welfare system. At the time, some lawmakers said they were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on ICWA’s constitutionality in the case of Brackeen v. Haaland. The court upheld ICWA in June.
We filed multiple public records requests seeking data on the number of children in foster care in South Dakota as well as their demographics. While most of our state records requests were handled in a timely manner, one of our records requests wasn’t fulfilled until Thursday, Nov. 16, almost two weeks from when the series started publishing. We gathered information already publicly available from DSS, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the National Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. We wanted to know what recommendations from a 2004 state commission studying the overrepresentation of Native children in foster care had been implemented.
Thousands of miles were put on our cars as we met sources in Pine Ridge, Fort Thompson, Eagle Butte, Sisseton, Winner, Pierre and Sioux Falls. One of us even took time out of a family vacation in Oregon to meet with an expert based in Portland. If we couldn’t meet with an expert, we called them.
Samantha Laurey joined the Argus Leader as its visual journalist halfway through the project and jumped right into helping us to capture the pain parents face when their parental rights are terminated and the hope foster parents have for a better support system.
Lunches and dinners were gas station snacks and a stop at Al’s Oasis in Oacoma (we did not get pie — a missed opportunity). The Ronning Branch Library in Sioux Falls offered us a space in the study room to write and edit each other’s work.
We woke up before the sun was up and stayed working well past midnight on some days so that we could balance this project along with our everyday job duties and the needs of our families.
If you want to reach out to us about your experiences within South Dakota’s foster care system — as a foster, adoptive or biological parent; a former foster child; or with professional experience in the system — please fill out this Google form. We will continue to report on this topic and the impact it has on children, families, tribes and South Dakota taxpayers.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: How the Argus Leader and SD Searchlight reported The Lost Children