South Dakota’s ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ Child-Custody Hearings Are No More

Over the last four years alone, more than 500 Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes by state officials in Pennington County, South Dakota, which then subjected their parents to child-custody hearings that violated federal law.

In these hearings, some of which lasted no more than 60 seconds, the presiding state court judge never advised parents they had a right to challenge the petition against them, never gave the parents an opportunity to call witnesses, never required the state to present evidence from a live witness, and never gave the parents a chance to testify on their behalf. All of the cards were stacked against the parents in these proceedings and the parents lost 100 percent of the time.

That’s right, you didn’t misread that. The state won 100 percent of the time, which isn’t surprising given that only the state was allowed to present any evidence and all of that evidence was submitted secretly to the judge. But two South Dakota Indian tribes — the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe — and three Indian parents fought back.

In March 2013, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of those two tribes and on behalf of all Indian parents in Pennington County against four state officials — the presiding state court judge, the director of the South Dakota Department of Social Services, the director of Child Protection Services, and the state attorney for Pennington County — for violating the federal rights of Indian parents. 

Two years later, the parents were vindicated. “Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better,” wrote Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken of the Federal Court for South Dakota in a 45-page decision issued on March 30.

Viken ruled that the procedures used by the four state officials in removing Indian children from their homes violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as well as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which establishes minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families. Congress passed the law in 1978 “to curb the alarmingly high rate of removal of Indian children from Indian parents.” 

According to Viken, state officials violated the plaintiffs’ rights to basic judicial fairness during state child-custody hearings. Parents didn’t receive adequate notice of the allegations against them, nor was counsel appointed to represent them. They also were prohibited from cross-examining state workers who accused them of mistreating their children and from presenting evidence in their own defense. When their children were taken, the state court also failed to provide them with a written decision based on evidence presented during the hearing. 

The state officials also violated the ICWA. One provision in the law requires that state courts not remove an Indian child from the home unless the state proves at the hearing that the child would likely suffer physical harm if not removed. Judge Viken found that state officials were ignoring this federal standard.

For far too long, the state of South Dakota was unnecessarily and illegally breaking up Indian families with impunity in sham judicial proceedings. Judge Viken’s ruling should help keep this from happening in the future. 

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Vivian Sanders

So, do the children get to go home now? That's an important detail that has been omitted from this story. Are the children being released back to their families? With impunity or with fair and just review by tribal authorities?


I'd like to know this too! We want our family back!


This is horrifying and I'm glad something is finally being done to right it. Bright Blessings on all the native tribes and people.


If state officials were violating the law (the ICWA, etc.), they should be prosecuted. I am so sick of "officials" trampling peoples' rights and never being held accountable.


This is the #1 problem in the US. When the honest, hardworking people make an honest mistake, the full fury of the law is brought down upon them by condescending douchebags who hold power. When those same condescending douchebags break the law, they practically ALWAYS get away with it, because even when they commit obviously intentional, malicious crimes, hey we should just cut them some slack, everybody makes mistakes right?


this jyst happened to my niece Dec 16 2014 and no as of today we havent got her child back..


Yes! if a bunch of teachers can be prosecuted and thrown in prison for cheating on standardized tests, there's absolutely no excuse for not prosecuting these state officials with kidnapping at the very least.

Saunders Crowe

What happened to the 500 children ? Did they get returned to their rightful parents ?

Robyn Ryan

euro-Jesus has them in captivity.

William Michael...

This is a dirty rotten shame and a a violation of all U.S. and international law. STOP THIS NOW!!!!!


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