Foster children are some of the most vulnerable South Dakotans.
They are taken from their homes and families.
They're asked to live with strangers, sometimes with foster siblings who also come from troubled backgrounds, and to trust a system.
The Department of Social Services tries to carefully screen foster parents, visit foster children regularly and take seriously complaints of abuse or neglect.
But some child advocates in South Dakota have pointed to cases of rape or abuse in foster homes as evidence of a failure to protect children.
They say the state's Department of Social Services has too much discretion as to whether claims of abuse or neglect are valid, whether a child should return to an abusive home or whether a foster home placement is right for a child.
Native American activists often accuse the Department of Social Services of seizing children unnecessarily and placing them with white foster families. A group of families sued social services in federal court last year, alleging children are taken for months, though hearings last less than five minutes and don't offer parents a chance to respond.
But South Dakota's secrecy — abuse and neglect hearings are closed to the public — makes it difficult to evaluate the arguments.
The state's confidentiality laws prevent social services from commenting on specific cases, even when there are criminal charges.
States such as Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota are more transparent. In Minnesota, for example, the records and reports from abuse and neglect investigations are open for public review.
System's secrecy barrier to evaluation
Almost 700 families and group homes provide foster care in the state at any time. An Argus Leader records request showed 121 investigated complaints of abuse or neglect in foster homes from 2009 to last year. Of the complaints deemed worthy of follow-up investigations, only eight were substantiated, and licenses were revoked in each case.
It's far below the thousands of complaints filed for other kinds of family households. But without more information, it's difficult to gauge the depth of problems in foster care.
Court proceedings involving juveniles are closed to the public,so disputes about the placement of abused or neglected children with parents, relatives or foster providers come to light only after criminal charges are brought or a lawsuit filed.
Even then, the process and the conclusions largely are protected from public view. Disclosing the results of abuse and neglect hearings is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Claims of abuse or neglect against foster parents after placement also are confidential.
Some child advocates say recent incidents in Aberdeen highlight a pattern of insufficient investigation and an agency more concerned with covering mistakes than correcting them.
■ Fred Slota, a former foster father from Aberdeen, will be sentenced next week for raping a child in his home.
■ One-time foster father Richard Mette pleaded guilty to rape in 2012 in a case that involved years of abuse of children whom he and his wife had adopted out of the foster system.
■ The guardian of another girl sued the Department of Social Services after being placed in a foster home with a teen boy who had molested other children. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, claimed the teen molested her on several occasions.
"I believe that there are kids in foster care in Brown County right now who are not safe," said Shirley Schwab, a former head of the county's Court-Appointed Special Advocates Program who closed her office after a high-profile falling out with social services.
Problems have surfaced beyond Brown County. Earlier this year, a former Canton city commissioner and longtime foster father, Jeffrey Nolte, was indicted on rape charges related to a child in his care, although the victim was not a foster child.
How foster care investigations work
Complaints against foster parents can come from children, neighbors, teachers, doctors or anyone else involved with a child who suspects abuse or hears the child talk about abuse or neglect, said Virgena Weiseler of the Department of Social Services.
If the department deems the allegations worthy of follow-up investigation, it passes it along to private contractors. The reports can be included in civil abuse and neglect proceedings. But unless there are criminal charges, the public wouldn't know anything took place. Even substantiated claims of abuse or neglect leave unanswered questions.
In response to an Argus Leader records request, the state offered a spreadsheet with details of each case investigated from fiscal years 2009 through 2013.
The information includes when a report was made, the type of report, the age of the child or children involved, the office through which a foster home is supervised, a ruling of substantiated or unsubstantiated and the date of that decision.
Read More at: Secrecy cloaks foster care investigations by S.D. social services