Last month, local media hailed what observers saw as a historic compact between the state of North Dakota and four of the Indian tribes that live within its borders. The agreement allows tribes to license foster homes not only on the reservations (as they have been doing for years), but also off the reservations.
Because Indian children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system—they are 0.9 percent of the population but account for 2.1 percent of children placed outside their homes—finding foster placements for these kids is of particular concern. Moreover, as Dean Sturn, the foster care administrator with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, told me: There is also an “inverse disproportionality” when it comes to foster homes. The percentage of American Indian homes willing to take in kids is lower than their percentage in the population. This new agreement, says Sturn, “will hopefully produce more Native foster homes.”
But this agreement should also raise concerns for anyone who has been paying attention to what’s going on in that part of Indian country. The Spirit Lake reservation, which is one of the tribes that is part of the agreement, has been plagued by years of child physical abuse, sexual abuse, and even a number of child murders in the past decade. In addition to these horrific crimes, there was also evidence that tribal authorities were failing to investigate and prosecute the individuals involved.
In 2012, Michael R. Tilus, director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, e-mailed state and federal health officials about what he saw as the “epidemic” of abuse on the reservation. In July of that year, according to a report in The New York Times,
a 2-month-old girl died there, after tribal officials had received warnings of child abuse, according to a federal official, and in May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were sexually assaulted before being stabbed to death and left under a mattress. Their bloody bodies were discovered several days later.
Tilus was actually reprimanded by his superiors for sending the e-mail. They accused him of “engaging in action and behavior of a dishonorable nature” because he had not gone through the proper channels to register his complaint. They rescinded his promotion and transferred him to another position. When the New York Times reported on this matter, Tilus’ punishment was rescinded. But in the years that followed, it became clear that the tribe was very slow to act on these problems.
In 2014, Congress was moved to hold Congressional hearings to discuss the problems of oversight at Spirit Lake. Though a new tribal leader promised reform, a former tribal judge told PBS that “I have heard from our present chairman along with other tribal and federal officials that changes are being made…. However, I have not seen any action that reflects it.”
Of course, it is possible that Spirit Lake has made great strides in the intervening years to combat the rampant child abuse on the reservation and the tribal government’s habit of placing children with dangerous adults. The federal government, too, has tried to put in some additional safety measures, requiring that “background checks to be conducted on all adults living in a potential foster home before a tribal court may place a child in that home.”
But if another local entity with a long history of placing kids with dangerous adults wanted to expand its reach to license homes hundreds of miles away, state authorities would think twice. When it comes to Indian children, though, there is often a double standard. The Indian Child Welfare Act, for instance, asks states to take race into account when placing Indian children in foster care or adoptive homes; by contrast, considering race when placing any other foster children is actually illegal.
The double standard is also visible in another context. While foster care agencies like Catholic Charities in Philadelphia and St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Michigan have been taken to court for discrimination for refusing to place children with or certify the foster homes of same-sex couples, tribes under this North Dakota agreement are free to discriminate, certifying only Indians, or only members of their own tribe. It is hard to imagine another foster agency saying they would only serve one race.
The reasons that Native American kids are overrepresented in foster care are complicated—poverty, addiction, and broken families are all to blame. But we are not doing Indian children any favors by letting the dysfunctional and sometimes lawless entities that govern some tribes expand their reach.