Citing the 1987 Proxmire Act, which enables the United States to prosecute acts of genocide, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has asked the federal government to file suit against the state of South Dakota for crimes against tribal children. The tribe’s homeland is in the prairies and badlands of North and South Dakota; one of its most revered leaders was Sitting Bull, who is said to have prayed Native forces to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Standing Rock’s tribal council urged the United States to take action in a September 17 resolution claiming that South Dakota has been taking its children into care and adopting them out of the tribe illegally, in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The resolution was passed the day after a child-welfare advocate informed the council that a young tribal member whom the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) had placed with a white adoptive couple was homeless on the streets of Aberdeen, South Dakota.
The advocate, Shirley Schwab, recalled tracking down the 18-year-old. “When she came into the Burger King where we’d agreed to meet, I saw that her life had been reduced to what she could fit into a small blue duffel bag. No driver’s license, no money, no cell phone, little more than the clothes on her back.”
“When she turned 18, she exercised her right to live on her own,” said the teen’s adoptive mother, Wendy Larson Mette. “As far as I knew, she was living with friends, going to school.”
Schwab said a fellow Aberdeen resident had contacted her about the teen’s plight because of Schwab’s prior knowledge of the girl. Public court records show that in 2010, the teen and her siblings reported that their adoptive father, Richard Mette, had sexually and physically abused them for more than a decade. A deputy state’s attorney initiated a law-enforcement investigation. Police visited Richard and Wendy Larson Mette’s house and found sex toys and stacks of pornographic magazines and videotapes in bedrooms and common areas. The children were moved to another home. Schwab became their court-appointed special advocate.
DSS appears to have been long aware that this was a problem household. As early as 2001, Richard and Wendy signed an agreement, now a court document, with DSS. In the agreement, the couple, who are divorced, promised DSS officials to lock up their pornography and stop “swatting, spanking, kicking and tickling” the foster children placed with them. DSS later allowed the couple to adopt most of the children.
When asked if she believed her children had been sexually abused, Larson Mette said, “I fully believe and support my children in this accusation.” She said she found her ex-husband’s treatment of the children “horrifying,” but said that over the years, she had never noticed any indications of the sexual abuse, including related injuries or behavioral changes: “What are perceived to be the obvious signs were not there. They had great attendance in school.”
Larson Mette called the 2010 police report accurate in terms of “room location or quantity” of pornography, but claimed that over the years she had personally seen only some of the material.
Court records and local media reports show that South Dakota cut a deal with the father, who is now serving the relatively light sentence of 15 years for child rape. The state dropped cruelty charges against Larson Mette, and despite allegations that she had tolerated the sexual abuse, returned the children to her.
The state then undertook to discredit publicly the children and their advocates. This included a retaliatory prosecution of Schwab and the deputy state’s attorney, who were fully acquitted at trial. Court documents and sworn testimony show state criminal investigators took the teen and her younger siblings to a basement interrogation room in order to get them to recant the abuse claims. The children were interrogated individually, without an adult present on their behalf. They wept and said they were frightened, but none recanted.
“When I met the 18-year-old and saw what her life had become after such trauma, I was devastated,” said Schwab. “I could hardly breathe.”
Within a few days of Schwab contacting Standing Rock, the tribe had flown the teen to safety with tribal kin out of state. “Our chairman said, ‘She’s our relative, get the plane ticket now,’” recalled tribal councilwoman Phyllis Young, who added that adoptive and foster parents have been known to turn children away after they turn 18 and government subsidies end.
Young said that three Standing Rock children remain in the Larson Mette home, and the tribe is very concerned about their safety; as a result, it will sue for custody. The councilwoman noted that in recent years Standing Rock children have been victims in notorious and widely reported South Dakota cases involving sexual abuse by white adoptive fathers, all of whom are serving time.
“If they file, I will do whatever is necessary,” said Larson Mette. “My children are happy. I love them, they love me. We are trying desperately to put our lives back together and move forward.” She called that a “fair” representation of their situation.
In addition to moving to protect young tribal members, Standing Rock has requested that the South and North Dakota Congressional delegations hold hearings on Indian child welfare. The tribe has also contacted the United Nations about submitting material for the United States’ upcoming human-rights review.
Importantly, the tribe is working with the federal government to develop its own child-welfare infrastructure. This will help solve a problem that tribes and Indian-child-welfare advocates have long decried—South Dakota’s habit of taking Native children into custody and placing them in white households and white-run group homes, thereby undermining tribal culture and sovereignty. The Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes and the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the state in a related matter.
“This all epitomizes the state of South Dakota’s total disregard for Native children,” said Schwab.
Neither South Dakota’s attorney general nor DSS director replied to requests for comments on any of these matters.
“The language of the Standing Rock tribal council resolution is both specific and global,” said Young. “We act on behalf of this teen and her siblings, and for all Native children who have been taken from their tribal communities.” The Proxmire Act includes reparations, she said, and the tribe wants the children’s reparations to include lifelong therapy for the abuse they have suffered.
“What is happening to our children is like war crimes,” Young continued. “We heard terrible things at hearings we just held at Standing Rock. Over the years, many Indian women have asked me to help get their children back. Some of our children the state has in its custody right now are Sitting Bull descendents. This has historic dimensions. We at Standing Rock are taking this to the limit.”