Blog of Rights

South Dakota Parents and Tribes File Lawsuit Over Unlawful Separation of Children From Families

By Vesna Jaksic, ACLU at 12:46pm

In South Dakota, Indian children are regularly removed from their homes without parents being permitted to see documents filed against them, present witnesses to support their case, or even get a hearing that lasts much more than a minute. Superficial hearings and thin evidence are often enough for state officials to remove Indian children from their parents, homes and tribes, which are such an integral part of these children's lives.

Three Indian parents and two tribes in South Dakota today stood up against these unlawful and disgraceful practices by filing a class-action lawsuit in Rapid City, South Dakota. The ACLU filed the complaint on their behalf in order to put an end to this unconstitutional process, which has unfortunately become standard practice in the state.

It is disturbing how often Indian children are separated from their parents, tribes and communities based on flimsy evidence," said Stephen Pevar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "Whenever a family goes through the difficult separation process, state officials must ensure people's fundamental rights are not thrown out the window. These children, parents and tribes are entitled to more by federal law.

Family separation can be traumatic for anyone, but it can be particularly difficult for Indian families, as their children are typically placed with non-Indian families, and therefore cut off from their heritage and cultural ties. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act largely because it recognized the importance of ensuring Indian tribes keep Indian children in their homes. But as an NPR investigation found, nine out of 10 Native American children are placed in non-Native settings. Another report from NPR last month again pointed out the harms of such practices.

Robert Doody, executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota, said it is time for state officials to start following the law:

After years of complaints, South Dakota has failed to address the systematic practices of removing Indian children from their homes. This lawsuit seeks to address these unconstitutional and harmful policies, and will hopefully prompt state officials to finally start following the law and respecting people's basic rights.

The complaint was filed today in federal district court against various state and local officials. It seeks to end these systemic practices, which typically lead to removal of children for two, or even three months, and inflict great harm:

All three of these mothers suffered, and watched their children suffer, extreme emotional and psychological trauma as a result of this forced separation," the complaint states. "They bring this action in an effort to protect themselves and other Indian parents and children from experiencing the irreparable and grievous injuries that they and their children suffered.

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