Amicus lector
The state of South Dakota vs. NPR

My broad-brush story about South Dakota’s issues with the Indian Child Welfare Act was accompanied by this more pointed story about a kerfuffle between the state and a national broadcaster.

The story came from now-departed natural resource reporter Cody Winchester (he’s here now), and it outlines the back-and-forth between NPR and the state of South Dakota over an investigative series “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families.”

Gov. Dennis Daugaard took exception to the series before he even heard the story.

His staff preempted the series with this screed, based on assumptions about the story they made through their interactions with the reporter.

Daugaard-NPR-Setting the Record Straight

Once the state heard and read the stories, Daugaard’s people had a few more complaints, largely based on budget numbers.
The ombudsman is investigating and plans to issue a report on the alleged inaccuracies.

The complaints, though, have done little to blunt the impact of the series. Shortly after it ran, Congressional representatives and Senators began to call for hearings on South Dakota’s practice of placing Native children with white families.

Now, two tribes have sued the state, demanding that it do more to comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

Winchester’s story has lawyer Danny Sheehan saying that more lawsuits are on the way, and the NPR series was a driving force in motivating what he sees as a long-overdue pushback against the state.

I talked to Sheehan for my story, as well. He told me the same thing. I talked to him a bit about the discrepancies in the NPR report, and about our frustration in reporting on the controversy (we haven’t seen the ombudsman’s report).

Sheehan believes NPR got it right. His Lakota People’s Law Project issued a report to Congress saying as much.

He also says questions about whether the series was based on dubious accounting or a had a misleading presentation are less important than the underlying fact the story sought to bring to light: South Dakota has not done enough to comply with ICWA, there are too many Native kids in foster care and too many of them are disconnected from their culture.

The series inspired the tribes to work together on those issues, which assuredly is a big deal.

“There’s going to be a whole series of very real events that will follow this,” Sheehan told me.

If the ombudsman finds fault in Laura Sullivan’s reporting, those things will still happen. Is this an ends justify the means argument? If it is, it isn’t one that I would make. I have serious doubts that Ms. Sullivan would make it, either. It’s likely that she stands behind her series as surely as the state stands behind its accusations about it.

Until the report is released, there’s plenty to speculate about.

  1. jhult posted this
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