Thursday, November 3, 2011

Foster care in South Dakota: When all else fails, try xenophobia

Apparently those NPR stories about the damage done to Native American families by child protective services in South Dakota have made that state’s governor, Dennis Daugaard, very nervous.

He refused to actually be interviewed by reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters.  Instead, he issued a five-page rebuttal to the series – before it ever aired.

What is so fascinating about the rebuttal is that it leaves all of the most important points in the series unrebutted.  There is no response to the fact that South Dakota tears apart families at a rate vastly above the national average.  There is no response to the fact that Native American children are trapped in South Dakota foster care at a rate nearly four times their rate in the general population.  In fact there is no response to anything in the NPR stories about the actual harm done to Native American children.

Instead the governor obsesses over part two of the series which was all about – the governor.  That was the part which discussed how, back when he held the part-time job of lieutenant governor, his full-time job was running the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota – and how, during this time, CHS did remarkably well when it came to obtaining state contracts.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told NPR that it’s “a massive conflict-of-interest.”  The governor’s defense is that everybody in South Dakota knew all about it – it’s a small state – and anyway, he was only doing it for the kids. 

It’s certainly true that Daugaard made no secret of his connection to CHS – as NPR reported, he bragged about it in his campaign for governor. He may well have believed, sincerely, that what CHS was doing was best for the children. (NPR never suggests otherwise.)   Most people who run great big child welfare agencies that hold kids in foster care believe that – and only rarely does the mass of objective evidence to the contrary change their minds.

Whether CHS got the contract to warehouse kids or someone else did doesn’t make a lot of difference to me.  The issue is that South Dakota not only tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, it also dumps the kids into the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions – at one of the highest rates in the nation. But the governor’s past employment raises another concern: Anyone that emotionally invested in warehousing children is going to find it hard to face up to the reality of how much it harms children.


The role of CHS raises questions about a different kind of potential conflict of interest – the kind that comes with what is known in the corporate world as “vertical integration.”  During Daugaard’s time as Lieutenant Governor, CHS grew so huge that a good case can be made that, as a practical matter, CHS runs child welfare in South Dakota.

● CHS does the examinations of children to determine if they were abused or neglected.
● CHS trains the state caseworkers who decide whether to remove a child from the home.
● CHS screens the potential foster parents, both strangers and relatives, who might take in those children.
● CHS trains the foster parents.
● CHS runs lots of group homes and institutions.

So if CHS decides a child is abused, it increases the number of potential candidates for CHS group homes and institutions.  If CHS trains the caseworkers, will those caseworkers be trained in a way that makes them more likely to take away the child – and send that child to a CHS institution?  If CHS screens family foster homes that are, in effect, “competitors” to CHS group homes and institutions, will they set standards many of those family foster homes can’t meet?

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be some kind of conscious conspiracy.  But rationalization is powerful.  Any organization whose livelihood is dependent on substitute care is going to persuade itself that lots and lots of children need substitute care.

It’s no different from doctors who are more likely to perform unnecessary surgery when paid on a fee-for-service basis or hospitals which extend patient stays when they are paid by the day.  In both cases, the medical personnel almost certainly have persuaded themselves that the patients are really, really sick.

The governor’s “prebuttal” as it was aptly described by one reporter, addresses none of this.  And, as I noted at the outset, it says nothing about the entire issue of the destruction of Native American families.


The only support the Governor can come up with for the claim of bias is a statement from his own press secretary, Joe Kafka (I’m not making that name up) and an e-mail from reporter Sullivan requesting an interview. 

In fact, rather than showing bias, the e-mail is an example of exactly what good, careful reporters are supposed to do.

When I was a reporter in the late 1980s, the newspaper where I worked brought in a superb investigative reporter as a guest speaker.  In discussing the need for fairness in investigative reporting, this reporter urged us, as we reached the conclusion of any project, to go to anyone who may not come out looking good and “show them the wall.”  By that he meant, lay out every specific point that raises questions about the subject and give that subject a full opportunity to respond.

That is exactly what Sullivan does in her e-mail.  She spells out exactly what she and producer Walters have found so far and asks the Governor to please tell his side of the story.  This is precisely the opposite of the kind of “ambush interview” we’ve all seen on some television newsmagazine programs, the kind that gives investigative reporting a bad name.

Governor Daugaard should have welcomed the e-mail and told his side of the story. Unless of course, he had no real answer.

Apparently he doesn’t.  Because the governor’s other tactic was to change the subject.


If, as Samuel Johnson said, false patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel, the next-to-last is xenophobia.

And so, in the very first paragraph of his prebuttal, the governor notes that Sullivan “a native of San Francisco, works for Washington DC-based NPR.”

Horrors!  Washington and San Francisco!  Obviously, anyone with a background like that simply has it in for South Dakota.  (I imagine the only thing worse would be to work in the Washington area and be from New York City – like me.)

Similarly, after two Members of Congress said they were launching an investigation, an aide to the governor complained that they are from “other states” and didn’t speak to the South Dakota Department of Social Services first.  The real question is why the South Dakota Congressional delegation so far has refused to speak up for their Native American constituents – and all the children harmed by the rampant misuse and overuse of foster care in the state.

But it seems the governor underestimated his constituents, or at least the state’s journalists – because they don’t seem to be buying it.

See, in particular the work of Denise Ross, a reporter for the Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D.  (She’s the one who came up with “prebuttal.”)  In a post on the newspaper’s Blog she speaks highly of the governor, and expresses her conviction that he really does care about the kids.  But she also writes:

The much bigger, longer-standing issue is whether South Dakota complies with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and other laws, for example when social workers enter Indian reservations with which the state has no agreement and remove tribal children from their homes. The Crow Creek tribe threatened to prosecute for kidnapping in one case, NPR reported, and the children were promptly returned to their relatives. …

Here’s my hope, especially given my enduring belief in Daugaard’s character. I hope that he acknowledges that the state contracts for CHS look bad, but I hope he then vows as governor to look into South Dakota’s foster care system, our compliance with ICWA and our rate of taking children from their home – about 3 times that of other states.  I hope he works as hard at that as he worked as a young lawmaker to bring some reform to juvenile corrections. This time, he has a lot more power to affect change.

I don’t know where Ms. Ross was born and raised.  But right now, Gov. Daugaard, she’s sending you a message straight from Mitchell, South Dakota.

CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to fix an error in the name of the newspaper in Mitchell, S.D.  I can only imagine what Joe Kafka will make of that.