Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: At last, “these people” are heard on NPR

NOW I remember why I used to be proud to work at a public radio station.

To hear the excellent NPR stories discussed in this post, follow this link

One of the earliest posts on this Blog concerned a dreadful story aired on what was then known as National Public Radio concerning the death of Nixzmary Brown in New York City in January, 2006.

The story gave a full airing to those who said the case “raised questions” about whether the city had been doing too much to keep families together  - with no response from families who had lost children to foster care.

When we complained to NPR’s ombudsman at the time, he contacted an editor who worked on the story, Andrea DeLeon.  She said of parents:

I don't believe these people are key stakeholders in a story about whether the system is functioning well today. [Emphasis added].

That contempt permeated NPR coverage of child welfare for several years thereafter

That could be seen clearly when four separate NPR programs covered a report about trans-racial adoption – and talked only to white people.

It could be seen in the story in which reporter Michelle Trudeau’s very first sentence was an outright lie:

A child is placed in foster care only as a last resort, when parental maltreatment or neglect is extreme and unremitting.

At the time I wrote that “The only reason I can't call that a baldfaced lie is that I don't think she would make this false allegation on purpose.”  But that was three years ago.  An honest error that remains uncorrected no longer is honest.

Things did start to get better more recently.  Tell Me More did an excellent report on racial bias in child welfare and, of course, recently NPR’s flagship news programs,  All Things Considered and Morning Edition, aired an excellent series on parents falsely accused of killing their children.

But Tell Me More is a program aimed at minorities.  And the fatality stories dealt with a very small subsection of the problem, and one of the few where the issue reaches into the middle class.

The heart of the problem – poverty and racism - never made it to the heart of the NPR schedule – until now.

Now Michelle Trudeau’s error of commission, Andrea DeLeon’s error of omission, and all the errors in between, all the mistakes that led me to conclude that NPR stood for “No Parent Response” are being corrected – the record is being set straight and then some.

The corrective comes in the form of a superb three-part series now airing on the network.  Part one aired on All Things Considered yesterday.  Part two is scheduled to air on that program today and part three airs on Morning Edition tomorrow [Oct. 27.]

The stories are the result of a year-long investigation by reporter Laura Sullivan and Producer Amy Walters into the child welfare system in South Dakota – and in particular the widespread needless destruction of Native American families in that state. 

South Dakota is among the worst by almost any measure.  It takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation, it places children in the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at one of the highest rates in the nation, and it tears apart Native American families at one of the highest rates in the nation.  In short, South Dakota hit the trifecta of child welfare failure.

NPR’s searing stories are revealing it all for the first time.

But South Dakota is not an isolated example.  Plenty of states are as bad, some are worse.  And almost every state has similar problems, the only difference is one of degree.

This is the NPR that made me so proud to be working for a public radio station fresh out of journalism school decades ago. This is the NPR I remember from before it became gentrified and too-precious-by-half.  This is the NPR that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  I hope it stays around for while.