Here is my recent column for South Dakota Magazine.
In October 2011, National Public Radio aired a scathing critique of South Dakota’s child protection policies. It alleged that the state is removing Native American children from their homes in disproportionately high numbers, “sometimes under questionable circumstances,” and that “the state is largely failing to place them according to the law.” That last part means that the state is not making an effort to place such children in Native American homes, as required by the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Lest we miss the significance of all this, we are reminded that “Years ago, thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where the motto of the schools' founder was "Kill the Indian, Save the Man."” The implication here is that South Dakota is continuing racist policies of the past, atrocities that aimed to destroy Native American culture and that resulted in terrible abuses.
The story alleges, moreover, that South Dakota has an additional, venal motive for its mistreatment of Native children. We are told that the state receives $100 million a year for foster children, implying that the state profits by removing Native children from their homes.
If the NPR journalists had made their case, it would be a damning indictment of South Dakota. Did they? NPR’s Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, doesn’t think so. An ombudsman is hired precisely to keep an institution honest. This he does by utterly demolishing the story. He finds that the series violated NPR’s code of ethics and standards in the following ways:
1. No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;
2. Unfair tone in communicating these unproven allegations;
3. Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;
4. Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;
5. No response from the state on many key points.
I will mention only a few of the misleading elements that Schumacher-Matos uncovers. Consider that $100 million. It includes all children in foster care not, as inferred, just Native children. It includes Medicaid and other medical reimbursements and doesn’t count the state spending that matches federal funds. It is very unlikely that the state makes money by removing anyone from their homes.
Or consider this statistic presented in the story: nine of ten Native children removed from their homes are being placed in White families. You aren’t told that four of those nine were placed by tribal courts or that tribal judges put Native children in White homes at a higher rate than state judges.
According to NPR, Native American children “make up less than 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half of the children in foster care.” That is the basis for the charge that Native children are removed in disproportionate numbers. Yet NPR’s own website shows that the disproportion is greater in Minnesota and Washington. What does that mean?
It means that all three state governments are simply responding to the cases with which they are confronted. Some populations of residents have higher rates of social dysfunction than others. One might suspect that Minnesota and Washington are acting more vigorously, with greater resources, to protect children in peril. If South Dakota removed fewer Native children from their home, that would “correct” the disproportion. It would also leave us open to the charge that we don’t care about the most vulnerable children.
Protecting children is one of the most important tasks of state governments. Sometimes that means removing them from dysfunctional families and placing them in any safe environment you can find. Almost everyone agrees that it would be better to place Native children in Native American foster homes, but there is an acute shortage of these homes. When a child becomes the custody of the state, surely the real question is where to find a safe environment to place the child.
There is no reason to believe that South Dakota has done a less conscientious job of this than any other state or that racism or greed drove our policies. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t abuses in our system. I am sure that there are and we need to know about them. NPR’s slanderous yellow journalism serves only to make it easier for real abusers to escape scrutiny.