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NPR Reports on South Dakota

October 25, 2011 permalink

[ item inserted August 11, 2013 ]

Addendum: The NPR story is in our audio archive. A year and a half later the story was criticized by NPR itself.



NPR's Indian child care series rebuked

Report on S.D. system flawed, ombudsman says

A year and a half after National Public Radio aired damning charges against South Dakota’s handling of foster care for Native American children, the news agency’s ombudsman said Friday that the three-part investigative series was “deeply flawed.”

The ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, who monitors the accuracy of NPR’s reporting, said in a report published Friday night that reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters committed “five sins” that violate the news agency’s code of standards and ethics:

  • “No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;
  • “Unfair tone in communicating those unproven allegations;
  • “Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;
  • “Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;
  • “No response from the state on many key points.”

The central theme of the series was that South Dakota was removing Native American children from their homes and placing them with white families, potentially violating the Indian Child Welfare Act, and raking in federal money for doing so. Schumacher-Matos found the reports badly inflated the federal money given to South Dakota and ignored the fact that it often is tribal judges deciding where to place children.

The ombudsman acknowledged, however, that he cannot conclude the state should not be doing more to keep Indian families together. “My investigation is of the NPR series, not of the state,” he wrote.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s office aggressively criticized it even before it was aired in October 2011, and Schumacher-Matos said the hostile relationship between state officials and the NPR reporters probably contributed to the report’s factual errors.

The ombudsman found the governor’s advisers were more cooperative after the fact, when he investigated the accuracy of the NPR series.

Daugaard adviser Tony Venhuizen said Friday that “we are all gratified by the report and by (the ombudsman’s) findings.

“The NPR report was very troubling because it included so much innuendo and so many statements of fact that were false or not proven. The ombudsman did what the reporter should have done. He spent almost two years asking detailed questions in a nonconfrontational way to actually try to understand the truth.”

In response to the ombudsman’s report, NPR said Friday that it “stands by the stories” and objects to the way Schumacher-Matos went about gathering information for his report.

NPR acknowledged, however, that Sullivan should have taken other steps to represent the state’s case when Daugaard officials refused to participate in the series; that it was unclear how much federal money was in play; that the story was not careful to explain tribal authorities’ role in foster care cases; and that such a complex story should have been thoroughly documented online.

“Nevertheless, in re-examining the series, we found the reporting to be sound. The patterns the series identified were well-documented. And they raise very real questions about South Dakota’s compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is under review by several federal agencies …” concluded NPR’s executive vice president Kinsey Wilson and senior vice president for news Margaret Low Smith.

Daugaard said recently that he would welcome the opportunity for tribes to take control of foster care and child protection services on their reservations.

Source: Argus Leader