On Ethics

S. Dakota Indian Foster Care 2: Abuse In Taking Children From Families?

Big Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background. i i

hide captionBig Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background.

Library of Congress
Big Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background.

Big Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background.

Library of Congress

The Allegation: Indian children are being forcibly removed from their families and put into foster care at high rates that reflect widespread or systematic abuse by the state Department of Social Services.

The best case in defense of the NPR series on Indian foster care in South Dakota is in the first hearing of the story. You have a hard heart if you don't get goose bumps.

The weaknesses emerge when you start taking apart the transcript.

This chapter sets the baseline for the next three and concerns the alleged large-scale abuse by the state's Department of Social Services in the court-ordered taking of Native American children from their families. In an effort to be as fair as possible to the NPR investigative team, I will extract large portions of the transcript so that you see their full case and its context, and feel much of the emotional impact. You may in the end feel that they are right and I am wrong.

Host Melissa Block, relying on the reporting by Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, opens on All Things Considered:

BLOCK: For more than a century, the U.S. government forced Native American children into boarding schools, stripping them of their families and traditions. In 1978, Congress put a stop to that. The Indian Child Welfare Act says Native children should not be separated from their relatives or tribes. Except now, it's happening again. This time, it's foster care.

Today, we begin an investigation that uncovers a disturbing pattern of how one state places Indian children in foster care. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports on the cultural and financial forces at work in South Dakota, a state where Indian children make up just 15 percent of the population, but account for more than half the children in foster care.

Sullivan picks up from there with what on one level is storytelling technique at its finest. She imparts a strong sense of people, of place, of sentiment, of the issues, of indignation — all in a powerful narrative arc.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's not hard to find them. There are thousands of them - Native Americans with missing children.

TANYA HILL: Well, my name is Tanya Hill(ph) from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. I lost nine grandchildren through the Department of Social Services.

DELORES HIPINTS: My name is Delores Hipints(ph). I am from Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. I've got two grandchildren in the system.

LIZ GUGLI: I'm Liz, Liz Gugli(ph). I have nine grandchildren, two of which were taken by DSS.

WESTILA CUPIWIN: My name is Westila Cupiwin(ph). I come from the Mnikhowozu band. I had a grandchild and I haven't seen him - well, he was like, 4 years old. He's 16 now.

SULLIVAN: These families want their grandsons and granddaughters, nieces, nephews, their children. And federal law says they should have them. Poverty, crime and alcoholism are real problems in South Dakota's poorest areas. Still, federal law says that except in the rarest cases, Indian kids must be placed with relatives, tribal members or at the very least, other Native Americans. But in South Dakota, that's not happening.

An NPR investigation has found that every year, the state is removing roughly 700 Indian children, some in questionable circumstances. At the same time, they have largely failed to place them with family or their tribes. In South Dakota, nine out of 10 Native kids in foster care are in non-Native homes or group care, according to state records.

State officials say they're doing everything they can to keep Native families together. But there's another powerful force at work, too: money. We'll talk in a minute about how the federal government sends the state thousands of dollars for every child it takes. Four of those children were Janice Howe's grandkids.

Hi. Are you Janice?

JANICE HOWE: I'm Janice.

SULLIVAN: I'm Laura. It's nice to see you.

Howe lives on one of the many dirt roads of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, where the dust blows on the window frames of simple houses. People here are poor, in the way few Americans are poor. There's electricity when you can pay the bill. Howe turns a chair to cover a hole in the unpainted wall.

HOWE: I'm the eldest of nine kids, and I got my bachelor's degree in nursing.

SULLIVAN: Her sister lives across the street; her parents, across the road; her daughter, two doors down with her two granddaughters and two twin grandbabies. A tight-knit family. At least they were until one afternoon two years ago, when Janice Howe's phone rang.

HOWE: She said, you don't know me but - she said - I work for the Department of Social Services. And I'm calling you in reference to your daughter, Erin Yellow Robe. And I said, what's going on? And she says, your daughter is going to be arrested for drugs. And I said, drugs?

SULLIVAN: Howe wondered, could there be something she missed? She'd never seen any sign of drugs. Then the social worker changed Howe's life.

HOWE: And she said, we need to come and take the kids.

SULLIVAN: Early the next morning, a car pulled up out front. Howe's daughter wouldn't let go of the babies. She kept saying she hadn't done anything wrong. Howe could barely watch.

HOWE: I seen them pull up, and I seen them go in. And then I seen them bringing them out.

SULLIVAN: Outside, the babies were calm.

HOWE: They were sitting in them cars and they were just looking at me like - most babies, they don't cry if they're raised in a secure environment. So I went out there, and I took their diaper bags and stuff out there. And I was just crying -and they left.

SULLIVAN: But as Janice Howe watched the car pull around the bend, something occurred to her. The social worker took the two babies, but she said Howe could keep her two granddaughters, 5-year-old Rashauna and 6-year-old Antoinette.

HOWE: I thought that was weird. I just thought, why can't I just keep them all?

SULLIVAN: The babies were driven to a white foster family a hundred miles away. At home, Janice Howe and her daughter sat on the steps and cried, as they waited for the police to come to take her daughter to jail. The hours went by.

HOWE: And no one ever came.

SULLIVAN: A week went by, a month, nothing. The summer turned into fall.

HOWE: No one ever came.

SULLIVAN: Howe's daughter, Erin Yellow Robe, has never been arrested for drugs or anything else. Social service officials say they can't talk about individual cases. But one source who has reviewed the department's file said the social worker believed Yellow Robe was abusing her prescription pills. But the file also says the case was based on a rumor from a woman who, it turns out, didn't like the Howe family.

And yet not only did they take the two babies, two months later, Janice Howe waited at the school bus stop. But the girls weren't on it. A social worker had taken them from school.

HOWE: I felt like, oh, my God. It's happening again. They didn't even call and tell me. Nothing. Nothing.

Sullivan introduces other characters to add anecdotal support for the allegation of large-scale state abuse. This is a key one:

PETER LENGKEEK: It enrages me. Cousins are disappearing, and family members are disappearing. We're very tight-knit families here. This breaks my heart.

SULLIVAN: Peter Lengkeek is a Crow Creek tribal council member. This tribe has lost more than 33 children in years, an astounding number for a reservation with only 1,400 people. Every one was placed in a white foster home.

LENGKEEK: If the state had their way, we'd still be playing cowboys and Indians. I couldn't imagine what they tell these kids about where they come from and who they are. It's kidnapping—that's how we see it.

State officials finally get their chance to respond:

VIRGENA WIESELER: We come from a stance of safety. That's our overarching goal with all children.

SULLIVAN: Virgena Wieseler runs a division of the Department of Social Services, an hour away in Pierre. She says the department believes in the Indian Child Welfare Act, and does its best to place as many Native American children with relatives or tribal members as it can find.

WIESELER: If they can be returned to their parent or returned to a relative, and they can be safe, then that's our goal.

SULLIVAN: Officials say they're dealing with abject poverty and substance abuse, and they have to do what's best for the kids. Rysdon is the department's secretary. And she says what's best often means driving onto a reservation and taking a child.

KIM MALSAM-RYSDON: Of course we think it's legal, or we wouldn't be doing it.

SULLIVAN: Malsam-Rysdon says state law supports that. But federal law says tribes are sovereign and two South Dakota judges, two lawyers and a dozen tribal advocates told NPR a state official can't drive off with an Indian child from Crow Creek, any more than a Crow Creek official could drive off with a child from Rapid City.

The allegation of a cultural bias at work is made most clearly in this excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Without question, some children in South Dakota need to be removed from their families. But according to state figures, less than 12 percent of the children in foster care in South Dakota have been actually physically or sexually abused. That's less than the national average. And yet South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

To understand how that's possible, how the state can remove Janice Howe's four grandchildren and more than 700 other Native kids every year, you have to understand one word: neglect. The state says parents have neglected their children, and neglect is subjective.

BOB WALTERS: The standards are set too high for our people.

SULLIVAN: Bob Walters is a council member for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. He says what social workers call neglect is often poverty and sometimes, Native tradition.

WALTERS: We're family people. If there's 30 people in my home, that's fine. I was raised with my mom and dad and 12 kids. I'm very thankful I grew up that way.

SULLIVAN: He says social workers are often young, and many have never set foot on a reservation. He says they don't understand that food is often shared among families. State officials acknowledge that only 11 of their 183 caseworkers are Native American. But officials say they do yearly training to expose workers to Native practices.

Sometimes, though, it's not just cultural differences. Jolene Abourezk worked for the department for seven years. She says taking kids was expected.

JOLENE ABOUREZK: It's just the norm here; that it happens so often, people don't question it - like, good, you are doing a good job for taking more kids in. It's just the way it's been, and it continues to be that way.

Janice Howe, the grandmother in the opening anecdote, surfaces throughout the story, serving as a thread that ties it together. Part One then closes with an affecting scene of her with her reunited grandchildren, bringing the narrative arc to an end:

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

SULLIVAN: Janice Howe now runs a support group in a church for families that have lost children to foster care. On this night, 48 people showed up to talk and exchange stories. In front, Antoinette and Rashauna played. Usually, when NPR producer Amy Walters and I would visit, they would hide. They later explained that like their mother, they are scared of white people and do not want to talk to them. But on this day, they drew closer. Rashauna took the final step, and pointed out a pair of radio headphones.

RASHAUNA YELLOW ROBE: Can I try them on?

SULLIVAN: They held the microphone up to each other.

ANTOINETTE YELLOW ROBE: What's your name?

RASHAUNA YELLOW ROBE: Rashauna.

ANTOINETTE YELLOW ROBE: Uh-uh.

RASHAUNA YELLOW ROBE: I mean, (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: Janice Howe leaned in and quietly asked them, what was it like in foster care? Rashauna looked up at her.

RASHAUNA YELLOW ROBE: I thought we were going to stay there forever.

SULLIVAN: And then suddenly, Antoinette blurts out a story about how Rashauna wet her pants, and the foster parents made her wear the underwear on her head.

ANTOINETTE YELLOW ROBE: Whenever Rashauna wet her pants, they put underwear on their head - the ones that she peed in, on their head.

SULLIVAN: Janice Howe looked away so they wouldn't see her eyes fill with tears. Rashauna climbed into her lap. As the singing started, they slowly swayed, knowing that even now, Social Services can come back. Even now, at any time, they can take the children.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

It doesn't get much more powerful than that. I was both moved by the personal stories and enraged by the state's actions the first time I listened to the story. Having been largely raised in the Jim Crow South, I have experienced hypocrisy and racism first hand.

But then...

Well, to use a storytelling technique, let's set aside the anecdotal story of Howe for a moment and look at the bigger allegation of large-scale forced removal of Indian children. That is what gives the series importance from a policy perspective, not just as a human interest story.

Condensing from the above, here is the story's case:

Block opens by framing the removals as a "disturbing pattern" in which the state is taking Indian children at 3.5 times the rate of white children. Sullivan says that this amounts to roughly 700 Native American children a year, "some in questionable circumstances." The "some" is a rare note of restraint in a series that otherwise unmistakably alleges that the abuse is widespread and is motivated, at least in part, to obtain federal funds. "There are thousands of them," says Sullivan, as she presents a series of grandmothers with grandchildren who were taken away. South Dakota's removal rate is almost three times that of other states, Sullivan says. Families aren't being notified as social workers are merely driving on to reservations and taking children — "kidnapping," a tribal leader calls it. The Howe case and other anecdotes indicate that the state's purported reasons for removing the children aren't true. Only 12 percent of the state's foster children were removed from their families after having been physically or sexually abused — lower than the national average. Thus, while foster care is indeed sometimes justified, Sullivan notes, she says that deciding what constitutes neglect is "subjective," to which a tribal leader says that the state often mistakes poverty for neglect. A former state social worker then drops the hammer. She says that it's just "the norm" for social workers to take Indian children from their families.

An attempted expose comes through clearly. Both Block and Sullivan refer to NPR's "investigation" and Sullivan says what it has "found." What I hear — and what advocates, prize-givers and listeners who have written me hear — is a clear allegation that the state is willfully taking Indian children from their families, on a large and unjustified scale. This picture is colored in for 23 minutes on All Things Considered, an extraordinary block of valuable terrain on NPR's signature afternoon show.

Which leads to its own question: How true, really, is the allegation? Let's look at the evidence.

First, there is this factual error: The comparison among states is both wrong and wrongly presented. Sullivan cited as a source the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. This is a small group that advocates for keeping families intact and is critical of foster care in general. We should have been told this about the group, so that we can better judge its information, but we weren't. Still, the group's statistics, taken from the federal government, appear to be reliable.

I first heard Sullivan's statement — "South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states" — to mean that it was three times the rate of all other states, making it a lone outlier. It isn't. South Dakota was fourth or third highest in removal rates among states, depending on whether the ranking is for all children under 18 or impoverished children under 18, according to the advocacy group. One can find a few "other states" in the group's rankings for which South Dakota has a rate three times higher, but then we should have been told which ones.

Sullivan's comparison with other states, meanwhile, repeats a critical flaw that I will discuss in greater depth in Chapter 4. The advocacy group's rankings are for all foster children, not just Indians. Sullivan, however, never alerts us to this shift in what is being measured. She did not explicitly say that the rankings were for all children. She also did not indicate what the ranking for just South Dakota Indians might be.

Additionally, any comparison among states demands context. By all accounts, foster care is strongly correlated to poverty. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Native Americans nationally have the highest poverty rate among races and Hispanics. South Dakota's population is third among states in its percentage of Native Americans. Ergo, South Dakota's high ranking in removals is consistent with its high percentage of impoverished Native Americans. This suggests that socio-economic factors are at play —as well as structural and racial obstacles — and not just government action in foster care.

Let's remember this as we look at the central piece of evidence related to the removal allegation. This is the extreme disproportion between the rates that Indian and white children are taken from the families. As Block said, "Indian children make up just 15 percent of the population, but account for more than half the children in foster care." (We probably all know that she means 15 percent of the child population in the state, and so can forgive that oversight.) Block doesn't say that she is comparing Indians with whites, but given that the non-Native population in South Dakota is overwhelmingly white, that is effectively what she means. The Census Bureau estimates that, in 2011, whites made up 87 percent of the state population and Native Americans made up 9 percent, leaving just 4 percent for all others. I myself will thus use white and non-Native interchangeably when making demographic comparisons in South Dakota.

Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of the state Department of Social Services (DSS), confirmed the 3.5-to-one disproportion cited by Block. More specifically, she told me that while Native Americans in 2010 represented 16 percent of the state's population under 18 years old, they made up 57 percent of the children forcibly removed under court order from their families. This disproportionality is well known in the state and among experts and advocates, but it is presented in the NPR investigation as if it were a new finding. Beginning with Block's framing of the series, it also is presented as prima facie evidence of cultural bias and abuse.

The statistic, however, turns out to be a poor indicator of either.

In Chapter 5, I will show how the number of children that the courts take from their families and put in Native American homes is roughly equal to the amount they put in white foster homes. This placement in Indian homes, most of them of relatives, is not mentioned in the series, though it softens, if not belies, the image represented by the 3.5-to-one number and the reporter's tone of a brutish state that cares little for Indian families.

But an even more telling insight into just what the 3.5-to-one number means comes from looking at a comparative reference group: These are Indian children who are not under court custody but have moved in with relatives anyway. This is a much, much larger group of children. The only ones for whom we have measurable statistics are the ones living with kin who receive welfare aid under the federal/state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. It is probably safe to say that like the children in state custody, these children come from economically poor families that have broken down, for whatever reason. This group by itself is nearly eight times the size of the number of children under court custody. As Chart 2.1 shows, there was a monthly average of more than 3,600 such children in FY10 and FY11, a large sample size that gives some statistical validity to observing them.

And what running the numbers on this reference group shows is that their demographic disproportion is even greater than that of the Indian children taken by the courts. The Native reference group amounted to 72 percent of all the state's children of all races who moved out of their families under the voluntary arrangements with TANF kin in FY10. This is nearly five times the population weight of the state's Native Americans under the age of 18. This five-to-one disproportionality, in other words, is even more jaw-dropping than the 3.5-to-one ratio for children moved out by court order. There may be hidden explanations we don't know for the difference, but an obvious key variable is whether the courts and social workers control the outcome or not. When they do, the removal rate is lower, not higher, than what many extended Indian families are doing on their own. This suggests that extended Indian families have set their own high removal rate, which the state is following.

2.1: Native And Non-Native Children in Kinship Families Receiving TANF Support, Under And Not Under State and Tribal Court Custody, FY10 and FY11

Source: South Dakota Department of Social Services

State officials insist that they prefer to let extended families take over, most of which happens without the state ever knowing. Malsam-Rysdon said that social workers usually step in only when they are told of emergencies, and even then they still prefer to defer to an extended family if it can offer safety and care for a kinship child. I cannot confirm what state officials say, but certainly the statistics partly back them up. If judges and social workers are to be judged fairly, all this should have been reported but wasn't.

The disproportionally high breakdowns, meanwhile, also suggest that something terribly wrong is going on inside many Indian families in South Dakota. But what?

The series, in a major failure, says little about this larger context. Possible cultural, historical or social answers get tossed out, along with the question of whether parental neglect might be a justification for the high removal numbers.

Here is pretty much the full treatment of neglect on-air, repeated from above:

SULLIVAN: Without question, some children in South Dakota need to be removed from their families. But according to state figures, less than 12 percent of the children in foster care in South Dakota have been actually physically or sexually abused. That's less than the national average. And yet South Dakota is removing children at almost three times the rate of other states, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

To understand how that's possible, how the state can remove Janice Howe's four grandchildren and more than 700 other Native kids every year, you have to understand one word: neglect. The state says parents have neglected their children, and neglect is subjective.

BOB WALTERS: The standards are set too high for our people.

SULLIVAN: Bob Walters is a council member for the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. He says what social workers call neglect is often poverty and sometimes, Native tradition.

WALTERS: We're family people. If there's 30 people in my home, that's fine. I was raised with my mom and dad and 12 kids. I'm very thankful I grew up that way.

SULLIVAN: He says social workers are often young, and many have never set foot on a reservation. He says they don't understand that food is often shared among families. State officials acknowledge that only 11 of their 183 caseworkers are Native American. But officials say they do yearly training to expose workers to Native practices.

You will note that the state never gets a chance to explain what it means by "neglect." The state, in fact, has a long list of conditions that go far beyond physical or sexual abuse. Among them, for example, are an illegal drug environment, sustained emotional harm, and leaving a child home alone "without proper care" — conditions that I suspect most of us would consider legitimate grounds for determining abuse and neglect.

Here is the full list as supplied to me by the governor's office:

An abused and/or neglected child (SDCL 26-8A-2) is defined as a child:

(1) Whose parent, guardian, or custodian has abandoned the child or has subjected the child to mistreatment or abuse;

(2) Who lacks proper parental care through the actions or omissions of the child's parents, guardian, or custodian;

(3) Whose environment is injurious to the child's welfare;

(4) Whose parent, guardian, or custodian fails or refuses to provide proper or necessary subsistence, supervision, education, medical care, or any other care necessary for the child's health, guidance, or well being;

(5) Who is homeless, without proper care, or not domiciled with the child's parent, guardian, or custodian through no fault of the child's parent, guardian, or custodian;

(6) Who is threatened with substantial harm;

(7) Who has sustained emotional harm or mental injury as indicated by an injury to the child's intellectual or psychological capacity evidenced by an observable and substantial impairment in the child's ability to function within the child's normal range of performance and behavior, with due regard to the child's culture;

(8) Who is subject to sexual abuse, sexual molestation, or sexual exploitation by the child's parent, guardian, custodian, or any other person responsible for the child's care;

(9) Who was subject to prenatal exposure to abusive use of alcohol, marijuana, or any controlled drug or substance not lawfully prescribed by a practitioner as authorized by chapters 22-42 and 34-20B; or

(10) Whose parent, guardian, or custodian knowingly exposes the child to an environment that is being used for the manufacture, use, or distribution of methamphetamines or any other unlawfully manufactured controlled drug or substance.

The state objects to Sullivan's on-air description of neglect as a "subjective" term. Here, I side with Sullivan. Judging what constitutes an environment that is "injurious to the child's welfare," for example, is subjective. This is why we have judges who deal with each case one by one. More important to me than the semantics is whether the courts or social workers are systematically unreasonable in applying the standards. This was not investigated by the series, however. Some DSS critics say that tribal social workers are less inclined than state ones to find neglect and recommend removal. If true, that would be an important story to explore.

The issue of when to keep families intact or split them for the benefit of the child bedevils all communities, not just Indian ones. National trends have swung back and forth over what is best, dividing people of good will. Failure to examine any of this, and ignoring the many sides and perceptions of neglect, represents incomplete and unfair reporting. This everyday story in The Washington Post, for example, has nothing to do with Indians but shows how states across the country are constantly slicing and re-slicing how to define neglect.

The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 1890, more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry. i i

hide captionThe site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 1890, more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry.

Kristi Eaton /AP
The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 1890, more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry.

The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 1890, more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry.

Kristi Eaton /AP

How much real neglect, however defined, might there be in the Indian foster care cases? I don't know. Malsam-Rysdon, in her interviews with me, repeatedly said the same that tribal leader Walters did: poverty, by itself, does not constitute neglect.

Of Bob Walters' example of 30 people crammed into a presumably small home, Malsam-Rysdon told me: "Twenty kids sleeping in a small living room or in a small environment is not in and of itself a safety concern. But if they don't eat for three days, or if no responsible adult is around, then safety concerns go up. We stand by our process to assess that." I suspect that most Native Americans would find this position reasonable and would themselves raise questions about the conditions for children in a home with 30 people in it. Whether social service workers are as reasonable in their judgments and execution, I can't say. But neither did the series explore this question, as it should have.

What Malsam-Rysdon does say is the obvious: "There is a correlation between poverty and neglect." She correctly insists that "correlation is not causation." But, sadly, some of the reservations in South Dakota are among some of the poorest places in the nation and are afflicted with some of the worst social ills.

This can best be seen at Pine Ridge, an iconic reservation among Native Americans. It was here, at Wounded Knee in 1890, that between 150 and 300 Lakota Sioux men, women and children were massacred by US cavalrymen. In 1973, a group of some 200 Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement seized what by then had become the tiny reservation town of Wounded Knee and held out for 71 days against federal and state law enforcement officers. Two people died. The protests were against both the United States government and the local tribal leadership. Two years later, two FBI agents were shot and killed at Wounded Knee. The Indian Child Welfare Act, drafted by then-South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, grew in part out of the sympathetic national reaction to a history of suffering and exploitation highlighted by the protest at Wounded Knee.

The reservation remains in the news, but more now for just the suffering. Articles and books recite a statistical slate of misery. A highly-reviewed book last year, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, focused on four of the worst places for poverty in the nation, and Pine Ridge was one of them. [NPR's Neal Conan interviewed Hedges last August about the book on Talk of the Nation.] Shannon County, which is made up of Pine Ridge Reservation, had the lowest per capita income of any county in the country in the 2010 Census. The Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek reservations were close behind. Unemployment on them is variously estimated at between 70 percent and 89 percent.

As Nicholas Kristof wrote last year in The New York Times:

Half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one-quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s, shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 10 percent of children graduate from high school.

Matthew Power wrote earlier in Harper's:

The youth suicide rate is ten times the national average. One in three women is a victim of rape. Life expectancy is roughly equivalent to Somalia's. Plagues of alcohol, drugs, domestic and gang violence. Pine Ridge is as profoundly damaged a place as exists in America.

NPR's own reports over the last year and a half have included segments about the federal government's reinvestigation of 45 deaths on the reservation, a lawsuit filed against big brewers by the Oglala Sioux Tribe for contributing to the alcohol problem, and an audio slideshow in partnership with National Geographic featuring images of poverty on Pine Ridge by photographer Aaron Huey.

I have never been to Pine Ridge or South Dakota. I cannot confirm the accuracy of these accounts. But their statistics of family dysfunction and social misery are so overwhelming that, clearly, child neglect has to figure somewhere in there. Certainly, an investigative series reporting on foster care removals by the state cannot sidestep the social ills with just a few throwaway lines and the dismissal of neglect as a reason. Pine Ridge may be even more interesting because it has its own tribal social workers.

The series falls into a well-meaning but old trap that academics and policy makers from our two major national political parties have been leaving behind. This is the trap of focusing so much on blaming the state or racism or structural reasons for problems shared by some group to the point that it infantilizes the group members, as if they were not adults and had no responsibility of their own. Many African-American leaders and scholars today, for example, rue their denial in earlier decades of the disintegration of the black family.

None of this is to say that racism or structural obstacles don't exist or are not significant factors. They are, and they need to be reported. But the single-minded framing of the series on cultural abuse by social workers and judges is limited and naïve. It is not in keeping with NPR's normally sophisticated analysis and exacting standards for an intelligent audience.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. i i

hide captionThe Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Kristi Eaton/AP
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Kristi Eaton/AP

The story's brief mentions of neglect amounted to little more than throwaway lines. For example, Sullivan said: "Without question, some children in South Dakota need to be removed from their families." I disagree that this is enough. Delving in much greater detail into the social context is not another story, but should be an integral part of this story if it is to be complete, accurate and fair. As it was, those lines of minimal context were followed on-air with a "but" or a "still," as the first one did: "Still, federal law says that except in the rarest cases, Indian kids must be placed with relatives..."

Meanwhile, South Dakota listeners caught a weakness in the Yellow Robe narrative. Janice Howe's story is heart wrenching, but several doctors, lawyers and others from the state wrote to advise caution. They noted that the story should be confirmed with the court case files, and that those files and court proceedings were closed to the public under the state's right-to-privacy laws. (Some states in recent years have opened child removal cases to the public.) The strong impression given by the anecdote is that state social workers took the child willfully, with little good reason and no court hearing or order. There is no proof of that, however.

Sullivan, meanwhile, does say in the story that she has an unnamed source who saw the DSS file. The source said that the reports of drug abuse by the mother were based on rumors from a family enemy. I have no reason to doubt Sullivan's reporting on this, but there was a surer route to confirm the truth: the investigative team should have asked the parents to sign off on releasing the official file. This would have given the anecdote authority.

This leads to a second fundamental weakness in the family account. The person making the accusations about how the children were taken, about the lack of prior notification and about the lack of information on their whereabouts is the grandmother, not the mother. Yet, it was the mother, not the grandmother, who dealt directly with the state as the children were taken and afterwards. Likewise, the state's responsibility was to inform the mother, not the grandmother. We don't know what communication there was between the state and the mother because we never hear from the mother, directly or indirectly.

Indeed, no mothers are interviewed in the entire series. All the family anecdotes involve interviews with grandmothers. This is not without value, given the extended nature of Native American families and the preference under the law for moving foster children into the homes of relatives. But when it comes to allegations concerning removals, it is parents, not grandparents, who are the first-hand source. Janice Howe's account may very well be true, but without the official documentation and without corroboration from the mother, it is, in the end, hearsay.

There is, additionally, no response in the story from the state to her account. Sullivan on-air says, "social service officials say they can't talk about individual cases." Tony Venhuizen of the governor's office, however, insisted to me that "all court processes were followed" in the Yellow Robe case. This much, at least, should have been reported. To be able to respond with more detail, Venhuizen said, the state needed that signed release of confidential state records by the family. He added: "We welcome Ms. Howe (the grandmother) and the other individuals who spoke to Ms. Sullivan to waive the confidentiality of their records." Sullivan has not responded.

It is the Howe anecdote that also contributes to the unproven allegation that state social workers, in Sullivan's words, are merely "driving on to the reservation and taking a child." The obvious insinuation is that they are doing so regularly at will and without a court hearing or order. This insinuation caused Malsam-Rysdon to bristle in her interviews with me. "There are strict procedures that we have to follow and we don't take any child without a court order," she told me. Which is why, she said, she does tell Sullivan on-air, "Of course we think it's legal, or we wouldn't be doing it."

Without proof that state social workers do take Indian children at will, Sullivan's tone and backhanded statement — presented as a denial — is tendentious and unfair, at best. Sullivan's ensuing on-air statement adds to the damage. It is gratuitously irrelevant when she says that "two South Dakota judges, two lawyers and a dozen tribal advocates told NPR a state official can't drive off with an Indian child from Crow Creek, any more than a Crow Creek official could drive off with a child from Rapid City." To my knowledge, no one in the state claims that it can do so.

Malsam-Rysdon summarized state policy in two bullet-points in an email as follows, adding her own italics and underlinings:

  • [Child Protection Services] cannot remove children from a home without a court order. In an emergency situation, only law enforcement can remove the children. In no case can CPS remove children without involvement from the courts or law enforcement.
  • In cases where the protected child is Native American, and living on a reservation, it is tribal law enforcement and tribal courts that are involved.

More on this last point is in Chapter 5 on placement. Alert readers might have noted the curious detail that it was an Indian tribal judge — not a state judge — that had the jurisdiction in the Yellow Robe case.

Finally, the story offers what at first glance might appear to be insider testimony about state abuse. It isn't, at least not really. This is how it transpires:

SULLIVAN: Sometimes, though, it's not just cultural differences. Jolene Abourezk worked for the department for seven years. She says taking kids was expected.

JOLENE ABOUREZK: It's just the norm here; that it happens so often, people don't question it - like, good, you are doing a good job for taking more kids in. It's just the way it's been, and it continues to be that way.

SULLIVAN: Now, she works for her tribe, the Oglala Sioux, and reviews every case to help get the kids back.

We as listeners reasonably assume that Abourezk recently worked for the state and that the "norm" she described was current. We are assuming wrongly. Abourezk left her state job in 2001, 10 years before the series aired, according to a press release from the governor's office. That is too long ago for her quotes to be of much use as the major source of "inside" information about state practices. That the series noted that she worked seven years for the state — giving her authority — without noting how dated were her views was a stacking of the deck.

In sum, from Sullivan's reporting I have no reason to doubt that transgressions by state social workers in removing Indian children from their families do happen. But there is nothing in the reporting to support the allegation and the whole raison d'être of the series that those transgressions are widespread or systematic. The series, moreover, was unfair in cherry-picking facts to make the worst case possible. It failed to provide the crucial socio-economic, programmatic and statistical context that totally changes the complexion of the story and challenges its conclusions about a culturally-biased motive driving court-ordered removals.

Given the sparse facts on state abuse, a more intellectually honest and complete story would have indeed been exploratory, and less accusatory. It would have raised questions and tried to come to grips with how often transgressions take place. It also would have dealt head on with the many complex social, cultural, legal and national family policy reasons that contribute to why so many Indian children are taken from their families, as well as why so many move in with relatives under voluntary arrangements with and without state support. That richer, more nuanced story would have better served the suffering being endured by many Native American families today.

Meanwhile, there is a second motive that the series alleges is driving state-ordered removals. This one is even more provocative. It is money, the subject of the Chapter 3.


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