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Case may shape Native American adoptions

January 14, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide a case that could outline the limits of a law on Native American adoptions written by a former U.S. senator from South Dakota.

That former senator, Jim Abourezk, said he hopes the high court can look beyond the emotion involved in the case and affirm the importance of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

The case in question, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, involves a 3-year-old Cherokee girl whose mother gave her up for adoption before birth after her father sent a text message consenting to a loss of his parental rights.

The father later said he had consented only to put pressure on the girl’s mother, with whom he has a rocky relationship.

The couple that adopted the girl took her home from the hospital as an infant, but said goodbye after the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the act requires special consideration be granted Native American parents.

Abourezk told the Minnehaha County Democratic Forum on Friday that a case such as the one in South Carolina is difficult. A case such as that should not, he said, call into question the importance of a law intended to guard against a repeat of the loss of heritage historically associated with the adoption of Native American children.

He said he’s taken calls from across the U.S. asking him to support a change in the law based on the South Carolina case.

“The Indian tribes were being decimated by white social service agencies,” Abourezk said of the reasoning behind the law. “You don’t change a whole law because of one case. It’s worked fairly well most of the time.”

The decision by the Supreme Court to decide the adoption case that turns on the interpretation of the act comes barely more than a year after a series of reports on National Public Radio highlighting the law from a different angle.

The reports suggested that the state systematically was placing Native American children with white foster families and giving too few opportunities to Native American foster families.

The series prompted some in Congress to call on a coalition of tribes to prepare a report on Indian Child Welfare Act violations.

“It’s a terrible shame, what’s been going on (with foster families),” Abourezk said.

The high court’s decision to take up the South Carolina case came Jan. 4, days before the start of an Aberdeen witness tampering case that drew the attention of Native American activists and child welfare advocates.

Former Brown County Deputy State’s Attorney Brandon Taliaferro and court-appointed special advocate Shirley Schwab were accused of targeting a foster mother named Wendy Mette for wrongful prosecution after she and her husband’s Native American foster children reported that the husband had raped them repeatedly.

The husband, Richard Mette, was convicted of first-degree rape.

The state Division of Criminal Investigation accused Taliaferro and Schwab of tampering with a witness to bring charges of abuse and neglect against Wendy Mette. Those charges against the mother were dropped in 2011.

Last week, a judge dismissed the case against Taliaferro and Schwab in a courtroom filled with supporters of the pair.

Abourezk agrees with those who said the two were targeted by the DCI for “blowing the whistle about what was going on” with the adoption of Native American children.

Concerns about the Mettes surfaced twice in the 2000s, but they still were allowed to take in more children.

A DCI agent testified last week that the victim in the Mette case never changed her story or said Taliaferro or Schwab had pressured her into speaking.

Defense lawyer Mike Butler of Sioux Falls was asked after the trial why he thought the charges against the advocates were brought.

“I would like to know the answer to that,” he told the American News of Aberdeen.

Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore said he respects the court’s decision but disagrees.



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