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 Children lost to the system at Cheyenne River

Looking for a solution at Cheyenne River

Toni Handboy is a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member and founder of Piya Wicoicaga Luta. She has become an advocate for children and families in her tribe and has become a voice for men and women in incarceration. Photo Credit: Karla Abbot

PIERRE – For generations, many children from the Cheyenne River Reservation have been lost to the system and never to be heard from again.

Two community leaders from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have stepped up to identify social factors which lead to children being displaced from their homes and into foster care or other state facilities. Through this identification, they are able to come up with possible solutions to this inter-generational problem of children being taken from their culture.

Toni Handboy, 42, Founder of Piya Wicoicaga Luta, has been in recovery for most of her adult life. Through this experience she has become educated and is working as an advocate for families, incarcerated men and women, and has made it her life’s mission to improve conditions for her community.

Handboy feels some of the social conditions which lead to children being taken from their homes have been a decline in resources. There are a large number of tribal citizens whom are addicted to methamphetamine, alcohol, cold medicines, opiates, and most recently, she has seen an increased use of Kratom and dust cleaners.

“Lately, a trend I noticed is our tribal members passing away at a younger age in years.  We have a high rate of homelessness on our reservation.  I witnessed families living at the local powwow grounds living in tents,” said Handboy. “With the rate of drug use on the rise and alcohol our families are being removed from their HUD homes. When families are displaced it becomes overwhelming to host another family in a home that already is oversized in occupancy.”

According to Handboy, when the Department of Social Services receives any reports on allegations of neglect, this can create an investigation on the family. “Elders are doing more and more to protect their grandchildren from being placed in the foster care system.  Unfortunately, their homes may not meet the criteria for the children to continue to live in the house. These are a few of the reasons children are misplaced,” she said.

Not only are children being removed from homes on the Cheyenne River Reservation, elders are being removed from their homes and being placed in senior living facilities. Also, newborns that test positive for illegal substances are being removed from their mothers and families.

“I have witnessed from working in the field of addictions that most children are placed off the reservation. Most families are located determined by the children’s needs,” Handboy said.

Handboy has noticed recently that children that have been adopted or aged out have been returning to the reservation.  “They are unsure if they are enrolled and how to go about getting enrolled.  If children are born off the reservation, they have been removed from their parents.  This may have caused them to not be enrolled by the tribe before considering adoption,” she said. “It has become a concern due to the number of children being removed from their families due to addiction or incarceration. Children come home as adults and do not have an identity of who their families are or family tree.”

The Cheyenne River advocate said she had requested statistics on children who have been displaced from their homes on the reservation.

Children who return home from being away will often find themselves alone, unloved and confused about what is happening in their families. This puts stress on the children to find solutions and ways to fix their family. This can create the child to take on the adult role and be expected to grow up emotionally at a faster rate, according to Handboy. “It can also cause child trauma, where they can lose their identity of who they are and where they belong in society. The connection to their traditional and cultural ties becomes severed. This can exacerbate the current circumstances to a point where they become suicidal or depressed,” she said.

She feels the child may not have any history of mental health or addiction, yet they end up living with the circumstances of their family dysfunction.  “The systems when removed may not see what impact these decisions of removal until the child becomes an adult. Society does not understand what is needed for a child when they become the forgotten and we forget, until they return home.”

Handboy states that if a child comes from a traditional setting, or practices, it should be explained by the elders and spiritual leaders on what is happening. It should be explained to the child according to age appropriateness. The spiritual helper may pray for the family and the child.  The transition of placement from one environment to another may need to be explained to the child and foster parents, according to Handboy.

“A traditional approach to placement or removal should be practiced.  The transition of State and Tribe are two different routes of care with children, babies and the elderly.  According to their age, our children should have a ceremony or prayers because they need to know that we are not forgetting them.  When they return home, we can welcome them back to our community,” she said.

Handboy would like to see foster homes and placement facilities having trained staff in cultural sensitivity and assist children with a “sense of belonging”. She states, most times they may not understand what is going on internally.  “It can be the saddest, loneliest and depressed time when they are removed and placed in an unfamiliar environment. As a tribe we should be able to create a unit that cares for our children at home,” she said.  “We can help our families heal. We can also assist the children to grow emotionally.  We can guide them in their growth in life.”

According to Handboy, the tribes have the tools to help these children and families. She thinks that one unit can be defined as a foster home, not as in a group home or foster home placement. “We can design a home for our children to stay on the reservation with our own system to raise our own children,” she said. “Children get lost because families have to jump through the system requirements.  The parents may not have the tools to raise their children.”

Some of the families on the Cheyenne River Reservation could benefit from training to support positive families to become suitable to meet those standards. She sees the need to define those standards for tribal families to meet in tribal or state situations.

“Funding a project that Joseph Brings Plenty and I have been working on is creating a “UNIT” to bring our children home. We would like to create a Lakota Home or Unit to raise our children,” she said. “We would like to bring all of our children home. We can design a program that will work according to our system of development.”

One of the loopholes she has recognized that help children get caught up in the system is meth addiction. Recovery from this devastating drug can take up to a year. Individuals, once recovered, will need a home for their children, but there is a shortage of housing on the reservation and this can force families to move off of the reservation. This is when the state gets involved.

“We need to develop our own tribal systems to track our children, also those who have a disability such a mental illness, behavioral problems or chronic medical conditions may fall in a loophole,” she stated. “They get placed out and do not return until they are of age.  We can protect our women, children and track the care for our disabled children.”

Currently, tribes do not have systems in place to take care of children with disability needs. This is a programming and funding issue for tribes, according to Handboy. She feels this system desperately needs improvement.

Handboy says Joseph Brings Plenty (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Police Captain), and others, have been working on Tatanka Luta Oti to create a foster home or Unit for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “According to the state, standards for a home may not ever be met.  HUD homes are inadequate due to lack of resources for home improvements. Lack of homes for housing and three families may live in one home,” she said.

Handboy says the goal for the tribe is to keep working on keeping the children on the reservation. “Joseph Brings Plenty and I are working on purchasing land on the Reservation to build and work on a project to keep our children home.  We would like to bring our children back and develop a program to help families heal.  These are the current projects we would like to become a reality.”

Without a way to keep children from being lost to the system, many of the families lost connection, and family members often pass away. When this happens, the tribe may not have the ability to track the family members. “The Indian Child Welfare Act plays a minimal role in protecting our children and families. Most individuals come home and tell stories of abuse, sexual abuse, physical and neglect from their placement families,” she said. “No one gives them a voice and our system does not check on these individuals; the family might give up on their loved one.”

Handboy has a sister who had a chronic medical condition when she was born. She was adopted out and came home when she was 17-years old to meet their mother, but their mother had passed away. Her sister was displaced and had sad stories of what happened during her time away. Handboy has heard stories of other individuals with similar stories. Some return home and are forgotten about. “These are the children and our tribal members that we worry about. We are not sure how many are out there in the world. We need to detract our own data and monitor our children who get placed out,” she said.

In a perfect setting, Handboy says tribes should create their own unit of care and can develop a system to protect tribal children. She would like to see children adopted out become enrolled members of the tribe. “The State will play a minimal role, when the tribe cannot fulfill their obligation, then and only then, we allow the State to take their appropriate steps to be involved.

The BIA does not have a child welfare system currently in place on the Cheyenne River Reservation. “My sister was placed out in care and adopted out to a family in the state of Wyoming. I have also heard other stories of members coming back after a while in care. They have disabilities and are forgotten about. We have heard stories from grandmothers that have children in foster care currently fighting for their grandchildren.  It is time for change and a time to invest in our children and bring them home,” concluded Handboy.

(Contact Native Sun News Today Correspondent Richie Richards at

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