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)

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  • The love of money for the state from federal dollars. Wow who is really on welfare! Those in charge that put the children back into the Mette house should be taken to court, charged and put in prison. Who does such a thing! It goes back to how much justice can you buy. Apparently our court system has their price!

    Posted by Allie Walking Eagle, 03/20/2015 4:23pm (11 months ago)

  • I can't begin to tell you of the rage I am feeling. so much for the State of South Dakota's legal system. I can't believe that those white people got those poor kids back after what they put them through. 11921

    Posted by susan watts, 03/08/2015 6:12pm (11 months ago)

  • This is again the ever failing judicial system, and they call that justice, this just sickens me, and another example of MONEY being more important than people, somebody or everybody needs to stand up for these children and stop this horrific abuse.

    Posted by Kim Whittaker, 03/08/2015 7:52am (11 months ago)

  • Look what we have done to this nation. None of this was here before we arrived on this continent. Shame on us.

    Posted by gary david, 11/23/2013 8:12pm (2 years ago)

  • Pedophile enablers such as those brought out in the above article must be held just as responsible as accused pedophiles like Sylvain Kustyan, Jerry Sandusky, etc. They must be apprehended ASAP before they have years to continue to destroy young lives.
    These perpetrators condemn their victims to a lifetime of emotional and psychological trauma. In addition, many suffer lifetime physical ailments, such as a victim close to me has had lifelong prostate problems. Male victims of pedophiles have 3 times the heart attack rate and ten times the suicide rate as non-victims. They suffer actual changes in the brain. Because they had to detach themselves from the horrible torture that they were enduring during the actual abuse, they have trouble distinguishing between what they intend to do and what they have actually done. (This relative and another relative victim are constantly saying "I told you that!" when he didn't actually say it.) This develops because victims had to learn to "live in their minds" while actually suffering the abuse. In the brief therapy sessions that one of the victims had with a psychologist relative it was explained to him how his personality quirks all stem from the abuse. Victims' personal relationships suffer. They subconsciously blame their parents for not having protected them and this leads to dysfunctional families, so family members suffer and this can cause problems in families that last for generations. I could go on and on. Our psychologist relative explained that it would take years (probably a minimum of at least 7 and with an expert in child sexual abuse) to achieve any sort of real relief from some of the effects and the reality is that the horrors will never ever be truly gone. These evil monsters ruin lives. Not just the victims' lives but as I earlier indicated those of non-victim family members as well. Since the average pedophile has 300 different victims in their lifetime and since the recidivism rate among pedophiles is virtually 100% and since there is no effective treatment and no known cure, they must be stopped ASAP!

    Posted by carolineredbrook, 09/17/2013 7:17pm (2 years ago)

  • Not only South Dakota, I'm afraid.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 09/17/2013 6:29pm (2 years ago)

  • What kind of legal counsel do the Lakota People have that hasn't won a damages suit or an injunction against the State of South Dakota in seven years? They need to stop complaining, raise money, and hire some top-flight for-profit attorneys. The Lakota People's Law Project has members of the tribe working on the case. They need to step back, hire a shark to take the case and let him go full-throttle after the State of South Dakota.

    You want to fix the problem? Hire a real lawyer. Sheehan wasted everyone's time and money prosecuting Iran-Contra which resulted in all the perpetrators receiving a presidential pardon. Daniel Sheehan has been working on this case for seven years and in 2012, the children were returned to their abuser? WTF?

    If you want to win a lawsuit, hire a for-profit attorney Spend the money, Lakota Nation.

    Posted by Arpi, 09/17/2013 3:16am (2 years ago)

  • I posted a comment. Can't find it.

    Posted by Chris Purcell, 09/16/2013 6:27pm (2 years ago)

  • As one who investigated, supervised, monitored, and worked with families of abused and neglected children in Montana, I find this story incredibly heartbreaking, so much so that I am asking myself how could this happen? Did this go through the courts? If so what testimony did the court hear that made it acceptable for them to agree to move the case forward as they did? What about the guardian ad liter for the children? I would like to know the rest of the story.

    Posted by Chris Purcell, 09/16/2013 6:25pm (2 years ago)

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