A tradition of caring

Caseworker Irene Red Cloud is known for the bond she creates with children.

October 21, 2013

Caseworker Irene Red Cloud
“I have always been in the social work field, even before I had a degree.”

Irene Red Cloud feels like she has been a social worker all her life.

Red Cloud, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, spoke solely Lakota before she began grade school and was raised and taught by her grandmother. And her grandmother taught by example.

“Watching her, she taught me Lakota values,” Red Cloud said. “But she didn't grind them into me, beat it into me, force me to live Lakota values. She spoke it and walked it, all I did was watch and learn from her. It's what I walk in, it's part of who I am.”

Red Cloud, 54, works for Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi, Inc, known as LOWO for short, the child welfare agency for Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Because of her commitment to Lakota families and children, Red Cloud was nominated as our October Caseworker of the Month.

For the past three years she has worked as a family support specialist, but recently took on more responsibility and a new title: continuous quality assurance supervisor.

“So now it's a whole new ball field,” she said with a laugh. She is enjoying her new role with the agency, but misses parts of her old job. “My heart is still with the families.”

Unique Qualities

Joanne Barreno, a foster care provider licensed to take in children with tribal affiliations, nominated Red Cloud not only for her attention to her job, but for the connection she created with the children on her caseload.

“She really showed some unique qualities,” Barreno said. “She would go above and beyond. She was very attentive, she always answered phone calls within the same day, she always at the home for visits, like clockwork. The children look forward to seeing her, she was part of the family unit.”

The bond she shared with children was one of the things that struck Barreno most. “She would always sit down and listen to them, ask them questions, give them attentions they wanted and always needed, but was always very honest with them.”

She said children have a keen sense of when adults are not taking them seriously, or don't sincerely care.

“They are young, but they understand when somebody is not really paying attention to them,” she said.

“Irene really does deserve this recognition, she is awesome.”

Irene Red Cloud and horse and young child
Irene says the true rewards of her work come from the children and families she serves.


Alcohol abuse is common on he reservations, and is at the root of much of what destabilizes families, Red Cloud said. The reservation has long banned the sale and possession of alcohol, but it is easily purchased in non-tribal communities on other side of the reservation boundary.

When a child is removed from his or her birth parents' care, the child is placed in kinship care, so that their extended family—or “tiospaye”—can look after them and see that they maintain bonds with their culture. Reunification with birth parents is the goal, but if that is not possible, kinship care continues. If workers cannot find relatives to take in the children, the tribe licenses its own foster homes. Children with parents who are tribal members are not put up for adoption and are kept within the tribal community, Red Cloud said.

The switch to having the tribe conduct its own child welfare agency happened in 2007, but the federal government’s recognition of the importance of maintaining cultural ties with children removed from their parents started in 1978, when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. Leading up to the new law, children from Native American communities were routinely removed from their homes and placed with white families. Native American communities feared not only for the future of the children and how they would acclimate, but the future of their traditional languages, religion, and customs.

Recently, issues of Native American adoptions have been in the news, when the US Supreme Court ruled last summer that a girl of Native American heritage who had been adopted to a white couple should stay with her adoptive parents, rather than be placed with her birth father. The girl's birth father had signed away his rights, but did not know the girl's mother, who is not Native American, had arranged for the child to be adopted.

A lover of human beings

For Red Cloud, the title of social worker came later, but she was always doing the work, she said. 

“I have always been in the social work field, even before I had a degree,” Red cloud said. “As a young woman, my house was always open to the people, especially friends out there doing their thing, with no where to go. I was always doing that. I was a caretaker.”

She traces her work back to her grandmother.

“She was always helping people, always taking people into her home,” Red Cloud said. “She didn't have much to eat, but she always had soup, bread, coffee, tea, to feed the people, and she always loved the people. She was a lover of human beings. She had a bigger heart than I don't know what.”

Red Cloud started her professional career as a secretary, working for the state agency that handled child welfare. Over time, in which she raised three boys as a single mother and earned her undergraduate degree in human services from Oglala Lakota College, she worked her way up to social worker, and continued working with the tribe when it began its own child welfare agency.

She said she was surprised and flattered at being nominated for the recognition, but said her true reward came from the families and children she served.

“That's what kept me going, at the end of the day,” Red Cloud said. “When I can look into the eyes of that little girl or that little boy and know that I left that child in a safe, sober, warm home, it was all worth it.”


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