Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gov.: No useful data in NPR report on Indian children

By: Tom Lawrence

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he didn’t gain any useful information from a controversial 2011 public radio series on American Indian foster children in South Dakota.

“I can’t identify any legitimate criticisms that identified an area where we could take action,” Daugaard said. “It raised my level of knowledge, but I think that’s a poor way to cause me to raise my level of knowledge, through a sensational story that was unfounded.”

Laura Sullivan, a National Public Radio investigative correspondent, produced a three-part series titled “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families” that was heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” in October.

The series said South Dakota was one of 32 states that did not comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and other laws. It said state social workers had entered Indian reservations with which the state has no agreement and removed tribal children from their homes.

Daugaard, who has said little publicly about the issue since the reports aired, said Monday the series was based on “unfounded” information.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that NPR decided that they were going to create a very sensationalistic story,” he said. “And it’s also unfortunate because it’s such a complex area.”

Daugaard made his comments during a discussion with The Daily Republic’s editorial board Monday morning at the newspaper’s office in Mitchell, following a public appearance the governor made earlier Monday morning in the city.

Sullivan had her mind made up when she arrived in South Dakota, the governor said, and didn’t want to hear anything that differed from what she believed. He said numerous state employees who spoke with her felt that way.

“It’s really a lot of misinformation and poorly researched information,” Daugaard said. “I think we did our best to refute much of it.”

According to a discussion of the series on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” the series raised valid points.

“An average of 700 Native American children in South Dakota are removed from their homes and placed in foster care each year, often in violation of federal law, an NPR investigation found,” the “Talk of the Nation” report states. “Native American children make up less than 15 percent of the state’s child population, but represent more than half of the kids in foster care.”

“Some Native Americans believe the problem is that Native children who are placed in foster care with non-Native families, as most are in South Dakota, lose connection to their culture, traditions and tribes,” the NPR report stated.

The series also spotlighted Daugaard’s role as CEO of the Children’s Home Society, which deals with many foster children and received several contracts with the state that totaled more than $50 million. He was the state’s part-time lieutenant governor for eight years while also leading CHS.

Daugaard “pre-responded” to the NPR stories before they aired, sending e-mails to South Dakota media outlets that claimed Sullivan, whom he declined to speak with, was biased and unwilling to listen to all sides of the story.

He repeated those assertions Monday.

Daugaard pointed out that the South Dakota Department of Social Services had contracts with the Children’s Home Society since 1978, long before he worked for it.

Daugaard and his director of policy and communications and chief spokesman, Tony Venhuizen, said they have been in contact with NPR’s ombudsman for six weeks and have expressed their unhappiness with the series.

An ombudsman is an intermediary between parties with a differing point of view. Many large media organizations have employed ombudsmen since the 1970s.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is NPR’s ombudsman.

He is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and a former reporter, editor and columnist for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

In his final online post of 2011, Schumacher-Matos said he would look into the story.

“Coming soon is a look back at an investigation of Native American foster care in South Dakota,” Schumacher-Matos wrote on Dec. 23.

He did not respond to an e-mail Monday from The Daily Republic asking for additional comment.

Daugaard said he’s glad NPR has someone who is “portrayed as being independent” taking a look at how Sullivan dealt with the story.


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