South Dakota covers up sex abuse of Native foster children

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Forced into sexually abusive foster care. Incredible and atrocious as it may sound, that is the fate the state of South Dakota assigned to several Lakota children through its Department of Social Services.

Few crimes resonate more strongly in human consciousness for condemnation than the mistreatment of vulnerable, defenseless children, but the state of South Dakota has sunk to the bottom of the deepest abyss of human depravity in its treatment of Indian children. The following case and others constitute a singularly shameful chapter in the annals of American history. Something has to be done about South Dakota!

National Public Radio first reported on South Dakota’s Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) scandal in October 2011. Since then, People’s World has carried several stories (here and here) on the issue.

This journalist had the opportunity in August to go to South Dakota to report on the crisis, in which Native children are seized by the state without proper cause and placed in non-Native foster care, in violation of federal law. This is the first of a series of articles reporting firsthand on this catastrophe based on interviews with Native people in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to listen to grandmothers and mothers recount what had happened, not knowing the whereabouts of their grandchildren and children abducted by the state’s DSS.

South Dakota gets about $79,000 from the federal government for each Native child placed in foster care. After paying the foster family about $9,000, the state retains about $70,000 of the funds for each child. Hence, South Dakota Natives speak of the selling of children. “Our kids are not for sale” is a strongly held feeling here.

But the most outrageous, so far, of the child kidnappings and abuse is the Mette case. From 2001 to 2010, South Dakota covered up, and indeed was more than in part responsible for, in an accomplice capacity, the repeated sexual abuse of Native children under its authority. Further, incredible as it may seem, those within the state apparatus who tried to help or rescue these helpless children through official channels were prosecuted by the state and lost their jobs in the process.

In 1999, Richard and Gwendolyn Mette (Wendy in court records ) – a white couple in Aberdeen, S.D. – had five ( not seven as originally reported by other sources) Lakota children placed with them by DSS. The lurid narrative and timeline of sexual slavery began in 2001 when two male foster children complained to state authorities of “inappropriate touching” and physical abuse by Richard and Wendy Mette. DSS also found that pornography was being left in the open in the Mette home, in full view of all the children. Incredibly, DSS just required the Mettes to sign a contract promising to stop any further illegal behavior. That this was the only step taken is astounding.

Predictably, the Mettes did not cease their behavior. In 2007, six years later, DSS received another official referral regarding the couple. Investigating police were told by one of the female children that the foster father made her sit on his lap and sexually touched her. The child said she told the foster mother. No action was taken by the state. Again, DSS kept the children in the home, despite this illicit conduct.

In 2010, three years later, with more complaints from the children of physical abuse and sexual touching, an investigation was launched by Assistant State’s Attorney Brandon Taliaferro. The police, upon searching the Mette home, found “enough pornography to pack a store.” Much of the pornography was of incest and was entitled “Family Heat.” Police reports confirmed the earlier testimony of the children that the porn was in the open in every room of the home where all the children could see it.

Eventually, Richard Mette pled guilty to raping one of the female children, a child under 10 years old. Mette was originally charged with 23 felonies, of which the state dismissed 22. The children told authorities that the foster mother knew that her husband physically and sexually abused them. In fact, testimony given at the trial brought out that the foster mother, Wendy Mette, encouraged the female children not to resist the foster father’s advances. She told the children “to make daddy happy.” It was disclosed that the Mettes had the children watch pornographic videos with them, after which foster father Richard Mette would engage in sexual activity with the children. The Mettes also had a dice game with porno pictures on the dice that would determine the type of sex to be engaged in with the children. Ms. Mette was obviously a willing accomplice in this horrific sexual abuse that continued for years.

Relatives of the children who attended the trial recounted that at times they simply had to leave the courtroom because the testimony was so graphic that they were physically sickened. Indeed, parts of the case read by this journalist are so graphic as to be omitted from this column.

But the epilogue to this unspeakable tragedy, in many respects, gets even more incredible. The state initially charged Ms. Mette with 11 counts of child abuse, all of which were felonies. Subsequently, the state dropped all charges against Wendy Mette. In August 2012, DSS took the four female children from the custody of their adult biological sister and, incredibly, returned them to Ms. Mette. This is beyond belief. The children were returned to the house of torment.

The entire country, in fact the entire world, should render a huge outcry of anguished protest to the federal government and the state of South Dakota at this continuing outrage. This case demands immediate action by the U.S. Justice Department, which so far has chosen to ignore this shocking tragedy. Continued disregard of this and other such cases can only brand the Justice Department as an accomplice in a moral and legal obscenity.

Daniel Sheehan, chief legal counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, has termed this case “the crime of the century.” Unfortunately it is part of a pattern of abuse other Native children are subjected to at the hands of South Dakota and its DSS. As one Lakota elder recently put it, “Indian children are not even being treated as human beings.” Again, something has to be done about South Dakota!

Photo: Ben Piven/Flickr (CC)


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee Indian. He is a freelance reporter and political columnist for News From Indian Country, and other Native and non-Native publications. He is also a historian and attorney specializing in Native American law. Currently, he is writing a history of the Maya Indian role in the Guatemelan civil war of the late 20th century.