There’s still a long way to go, but the NPR stories are getting results
It’s been nearly 40 years since I first started following child welfare issues. In all of that time, some of the finest journalism I’ve ever seen – or, in this case, heard - was a three part NPR series in October, 2011 by reporter Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters about the horrors inflicted on Native American children by the South Dakota Department of Social Services.
See what I mean?
With all the changes in the American media landscape in recent years, there’s been some debate over whether excellent journalism like this still can make a difference. In this case, the odds against making a difference were made greater by the hyper-defensive response of state government and, sadly, by the response of some South Dakota media that rushed to defend that government.
Nevertheless, the NPR stories have produced significant change for the better, and more such change is likely.
● For starters, even as the state denied doing anything wrong, it changed what it was doing. In the two years after the NPR stories aired, the number of children torn from their families by South Dakota authorities over the course of a year dropped by one-third. Nationwide, during this same period, the rate at which children were taken from their families remained virtually unchanged.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that South Dakota was such an extreme outlier that even with this improvement, in 2013, the state remains an outlier. It still took away children at a rate 80 percent above the national average, when rates of child poverty are factored in.
(The data take us only to 2013, because that’s the most recent year for which the federal government makes state-by-state data available online. The wait for these data used to be a little over one year, which was bad enough. I don’t know why the federal Administration for Children and Families is taking so long to produce such basic figures.)
● More good news: The NPR stories got the attention of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union – which sued the state. The ACLU joined the Lakota People’s Law Project, which had been fighting a lonely battle against the state for years. They won. As NPR reported:
A federal judge has that the state Department of Social Services, prosecutors and judges "failed to protect Indian parents' fundamental rights" when they removed their children after short hearings and placed them largely in white foster care.
According to the suit, some of the hearings lasted less than 60 seconds. The suit says some parents were not allowed to speak at the hearings or in some cases hear why their children were being removed.
These kinds of sham hearings are common across the country. (See NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda for details.) An official of the Indian Child Welfare Association told NPR the decision could affect how these cases are handled nationwide.
● Still more good news: One of the ways to reduce racial bias in child welfare is to create a more diverse staff. Apparently the South Dakota Department of Social Services has gone to great lengths to avoid this. Such great lengths that now the federal government is suing DSS for systematically discriminating against Native American job applicants.
Progress will come slowly. The extent to which South Dakota officials hold Native Americans in contempt can be seen by what happened in connection with another response to the NPR stories. In 2013, the federal government sent top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to South Dakota for a summit meeting with Native American tribal leaders and state officials in an attempt to resolve the issues.