The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.
Photo Courtesy National Indian Child Welfare Association
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Preservation of the Oglala Sioux tribal membership is at the forefront of the tribe’s continuing fight for sovereignty.
A 34-year-old federal law that directly affects the upbringing and membership of all federally recognized tribes is one of the least understood and most underutilized laws, all the while holding so much power for Native American tribes.
Oglala Nation Tiospaye Resource & Advocacy Center (ONTRAC), located in Pine Ridge, is staffed by tribal members who have experience either working with other tribal programs geared at protecting the tribe’s youngest members or with the state’s Department of Social Services.
Recently, the OST ONTRAC program reached out to the Rapid City community through a meeting that was set up through Woyatan Lutheran Church, which hosts several Native American events and presentations. The church is located at 522 Anamosa St.
The meeting, which was open to the public, featured not only the entire ONTRAC staff, led by Juanita Scherich, former OST Council member and now ONTRAC program director, and Valerie Kills Small Janis, OST Council representative from the Oglala District.
A meal was provided by ONTRAC for the community, and after a welcome by Scherich, each staff member was given a chance to explain their position and duties within the program.
Jolene Abourezk, Oglala Lakota, is the caseworker for the Rapid City office located on Mount Rushmore Road. Her office alone covers 10 states. One of Abourezk’s primary duties is verifying the enrollment or enrollment eligibility of all children with ties to the tribe.
“All four of our staff member, myself included, cover about 10 states each,” explained Abourezk. “I have upwards of 200 families that I am working with. It’s overload, but it has to be done.”
The OST ONTRAC program is situated below Billy Mills Hall on Main Street in Pine Ridge. This program is overseen by the OST Judiciary Committee and falls under the direct supervision of OST’s executive director.
Pine Ridge’s ONTRAC program offers intervention for and transfer of Indian Child Welfare Act cases back to tribal court for reunification with Indian parents or placement with other family members whenever possible.
The reservation-based ONTRAC program also offers family and group conferencing and home studies, and is authorized by the council to train and recruit foster families and find appropriate homes, according OST’s website.
A major goal of the program is to continue to protect OST families from unwarranted removal of Indian children by the state’s DSS.
ONTRAC’s mission statement, as established by tribal council, reads “Pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1979, (Public Law 95-608), the OST, in exercising its exclusive jurisdiction for all enrolled or eligible children, requires that states give notice to the OST in any removal of Indian children from homes.”
Additional informational meetings are being scheduled in the Rapid City area in an effort to create increased family understanding and outreach for families that can most benefit from knowing their rights when it comes to dealing with state and tribal involvement in child removal from the home.
“We want our families to know this information,” said Scherich. “Everybody wants our children because there are thousands of dollars tied to each child that the state takes. Everyone wants our kids because they are so beautiful, but they belong with us.”
States helps with financial assistance for each child from federally recognized tribes that foster families take in. Tribes are not funded to help with this type of assistance, so families are taking in their relatives at an additional cost to themselves.
However, Abourezk explained, the family placement includes the added benefits of the child not being with non-Native foster caregivers; children are often placed within their own familiar families and communities; and children can often be reunited with their parents.
ONTRAC was originally established to offer legal intervention in the placement of children alone. As needed, program staff have now taken on caseworker roles, often assisting families in finding and obtaining the resources necessary to resolve any issues in the family that lead to the removal of the children.
James Shaw, of Woyatan Lutheran Church, assisted with setting the meeting up and greeted ONTRAC staff members with hat in hand, humbly telling them: “I am thankful that you are doing what you are doing. It’s a hard job but here you are, doing it with a good heart. My family has been through this and I wish we knew about you then.”
“I am standing up, not just because I am short, and doff my hat, not just because I want you to see my bald spot, but because I stand in honor of what you do, and I take my hat off to all of you,” said Shaw in further addressing the ONTRAC employees. “Thank you.”
For more information about ONTRAC, contact the Pine Ridge office at (605) 867-5808 or the Rapid City office at (605) 791-2267.
(Contact Karin Eagle at email@example.com)
Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux Tribe offers ICWA outreach
Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2012
202 630 8439 (THEZ)
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