Federal Court Rules for Indian Families in ACLU Lawsuit

For Immediate Release

Federal Court Rules for Indian Families in ACLU Lawsuit

RAPID CITY, S.D. - In a sweeping victory for Indian families, a federal court has ordered South Dakota officials to stop violating the rights of Indian parents and tribes in state child custody proceedings on several grounds.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Rapid City attorney Dana Hanna on behalf of two South Dakota Indian tribes – the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe – and Indian parents who suffered the loss of their children at the hands of the state.

The lawsuit in part charges that Indian children are being removed from their homes in hearings that lasted as little as 60 seconds, and that parents have no chance to present evidence. In a 45-page ruling issued late yesterday, Chief Judge Jeffrey L. Viken wrote that "Indian children, parents and tribes deserve better," agreed with all seven of the ACLU's claims, and ordered the state to:

  • Provide parents with adequate notice prior to emergency removal hearings
  • Allow parents to testify at those hearings and present evidence
  • Appoint attorneys to assist parents in these removal  proceedings
  • Allow parents to cross-examine the state’s witnesses in the hearings
  • Require state courts to base their decisions on evidence presented during these hearings.

The court also found that the state violated the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law designed to ensure the security and integrity of Indian tribes and families. The law is intended "to curb the alarmingly high rate of removal of Indian children from Indian parents."

"Indian children are being removed from their homes without giving parents and tribes any valid chance to respond. These reckless practices have led to enormous suffering BY Indian children and their parents, and the unnecessary breakup of Indian families. This important ruling should help keep this from happening in the future," said Stephen Pevar, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "We are very grateful that Judge Viken is putting an end to years of violations of basic rights."

The defendants are State Judge Jeff Davis, Pennington County Prosecutor Mark Vargo, State Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) Lynne Valenti, and Pennington County DSS employee Luann Van Hunnik.

"All praise and honor should be given to those tribes and to the Lakota parents who have fought for the rights of all Indian people in this historic legal victory," said co-counsel Dana Hanna.

The lawsuit, Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota in Rapid City.

The ruling is at: https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/oglala-sioux-tribe-v-van-hunnik-summary-judgment

More information is at: https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/oglala-sioux-tribe-v-van-hunnik

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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