Editors' Note NPR responds to the ombudsman's report on the South Dakota foster care series.

Editors' Note

In October 2011, NPR aired a series of reports by correspondent Laura Sullivan about the placement of Native American children in foster care. The series focused on South Dakota, where it found an unusually high number of native children were placed in non-native foster homes, despite a 1978 law intended to curb such "removals." In addition, it found that federal subsidies for foster care appeared to have had the effect of spurring such placements.

NPR's ombudsman, responding to criticism of the stories by the state of South Dakota, has undertaken a 22-month examination of the work and concluded that the stories were flawed and should not have aired or been published as written.

NPR stands by the stories.

We have thoroughly examined the ombudsman's claims about this series. Last September, we were shown a draft report by the ombudsman. We spent weeks with our team, re-examining the hundreds of interviews and documents that formed the basis of the series. We conducted additional reporting. And we reviewed all of this with the ombudsman in a meeting in mid-December.

We take outside criticism seriously and constantly seek to improve our journalism. Last year, we developed a new Ethics Handbook to ensure that our practices remain current and meet the highest standards; and we appointed a standards and practices editor to advise the newsroom on matters of editorial decision-making. We routinely clarify or correct stories that are found to be in error. And we engage regularly with the ombudsman on a multitude of issues.

In this instance, however, we find his unprecedented effort to "re-report" parts of the story to be deeply flawed. Despite the report's sweeping claims, the only source that figures in any significant way in the ombudsman's account is a state official whose department activities were the subject of the series. Additionally, the ombudsman's interaction with state officials over the past 22 months has impeded NPR's ability to engage those officials in follow-up reporting. Overall, the process surrounding the ombudsman's inquiry was unorthodox, the sourcing selective, the fact-gathering uneven, and many of the conclusions, in our judgment, subjective or without foundation. For that reason, we've concluded there is little to be gained from a point-by-point response to his claims.

That does not mean the series was without flaws:

  • When it became evident during the course of our reporting that the state was assuming an adversarial posture, we should have taken extra care to reflect the state's position through other sources.
  • Our reporter made extensive efforts to document the magnitude of federal spending on foster care. But we should have indicated that the state's refusal to fully cooperate with our reporting left some doubt as to the precise amount of federal money in play. With state officials still unwilling to be interviewed, it remains impossible to determine whether the number is $40 million as they contend. But it is likely closer to that figure than the nearly $100 million we reported.
  • The story did not always clearly distinguish between the conditions affecting all foster children and those specifically affecting native children; nor did we adequately distinguish between legal proceedings that were the province of the state and those overseen by tribal authorities.
  • We agree with the ombudsman that certain complex investigative stories should be thoroughly documented online to the extent possible to ensure that the more condensed story-telling required of radio does not give rise to questions about the factual basis of our reporting. We did not sufficiently meet that standard when the South Dakota series aired.

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 including the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and by the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Kinsey Wilson, EVP &Chief Content Officer

Margaret Low Smith, SVP News