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Iowa tribes reflect on progress in march for children lost to foster care

Native American communities in western Iowa marched through Sioux City on Wednesday to honor Indigenous children lost to the foster care system.

At the annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children, local organizers reflected on decades of progress made within the child protection system since the march began 20 years ago.

The march aims to draw attention to the disproportionate number of tribal children who are forced to separate from their families and tribes and are placed in foster care.

More than 200 people marched three miles from War Eagle Park, a site considered sacred among Native Americans, to downtown Sioux City, stopping across town to pray for families who have been separated over the years .

Two children hold a banner that reads Annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children.  A group of protesters can be seen behind them.
Native communities marched through Sioux City in honor of children lost to the foster care system.

Terry Medina, a Native American advocate, said it was one of the largest turnouts he’s seen for the event. He said the movement is more united than when it started.

“We have DHS at the table. We have law enforcement on the table. We came together for our children,” he said.

Much progress has been made since the march began, Medina said. Native liaisons have been added to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services in Woodbury County, and a coalition has been formed to fill the resource gaps for Native families.

At one of the prayer stops, Tom Bouska, who leads HHS’s western Iowa service area, said the department is committed to continuing to work to keep Native families together.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is have that dialogue with the tribes, but also work closely with other parts of the community, with the court system, with the attorneys and with the families,” he said.

Woodbury County has the largest Native population in the state at around 3%. But local children accounted for nearly a third of child welfare cases in the county that year.

Of the 285 Native American children admitted to the Iowa child welfare system this year, 37% were placed with relatives or notional relatives.

Organizer Manape LaMere said the goal is for as many children as possible to stay with their relatives. He said many of the children the community first marched for are now adults, and some have even found their way back into their tribal communities.

He said it’s living proof of the progress they’ve made.

A child in a pink hat leans against a white building under a sign that reads
The march has been an annual event in Sioux City for the past 20 years.

“Many are here. Many of them brought their families with them. So it feels like this year will come full circle. It feels really rewarding and encouraging,” he said.

Nonetheless, the organizers urged those present to keep moving forward. LaMere said the walk is a way for Indigenous communities to find healing and a way to hold both government agencies and Indigenous communities accountable.

“We’re in an area where we’re learning to be better men, better women and better young people,” he said. “We’re eliminating those excuses in this community.”

Outside the Woodbury County courthouse, Native American attorney Josh Taylor said there was still more work to be done. He said he would like to work with social services to fight to keep local children growing.

“[It’s] We’ve been raising awareness for this for 20 years and it’s not the end,” said Taylor. “We will continue. It’s getting bigger. I can tell you. This isn’t the end.”