Slandering the Red States, Part III: She Was Promised There Would Be No Math

I am investigating a three-part series by NPR on South Dakota’s Department of Social Services; specifically, the work that DSS’s Child Protection Services division does with Native American children. In a nutshell, NPR reporter Laura Sullivan charged that South Dakota’s agencies “kidnap” Indian children off reservations so that they can make a profit by placing them in white foster homes. In Part I, I introduced the series and wrote about the hostility that liberal media manifest toward red states like South Dakota. In Part II, I rebutted Ms. Sullivan’s absurd claim that Child Protection Services “kidnaps” Indian children.

This post will address NPR’s claim that the State of South Dakota makes a profit by stealing Native American children from their homes. First, let’s be clear about what NPR said. The claim that South Dakota profits by putting Indian children into foster care was made repeatedly:

The state receives thousands of dollars from the federal government for every child it takes from a family, and in some cases the state gets even more money if the child is Native American. The result is that South Dakota is now removing children at a rate higher than the vast majority of other states in the country.

State officials say they’re doing everything they can to keep native families together. Poverty, crime and alcoholism are all real problems on South Dakota’s reservations and in the state’s poorest areas. But, state records show there’s another powerful force at work — money. The federal government sends the state thousands of dollars for every child it takes. …

A close review of South Dakota’s budget shows there’s a financial incentive for the department as a whole to remove more children.

Every time a state puts a child in foster care, the federal government sends money. Because South Dakota is poor, it receives even more money than other states – almost a hundred million dollars a year. …

“They make a living off of our children,” said Juanita Sherick, the tribal social worker for the Pine Ridge reservation.

But the state has a financial incentive to remove children from their homes only if the amount of money the state gets from the federal government exceeds the total cost of foster care, etc., to the state. Otherwise, every time the state removes a child from its home it costs the state money. That cost is reduced, obviously, by the federal contribution, but it is still a cost, not a profit. So, what are the actual facts?

First, Sullivan’s claim that the federal government pays South Dakota “almost a hundred million dollars a year” for foster care is ridiculous. Kim Malsam-Rysdon, who heads the Department of Social Services, says that the entire budget for all programs and services in the Division of Child Protection Services totals only $59 million. Of that, only a small portion–$8 million in FY 2011–goes to foster care. So the idea that the federal government subsidizes South Dakota’s foster care programs to the tune of $100 million a year is ludicrous; Ms. Sullivan just made that number up.

It is true that the federal government provides funding for foster care to the states under Title IV-E. In FY 2011, the federal government contributed $6.4 million in Title IV-E funding to South Dakota, but that contribution must be matched by state funds. (In the world of government transfer payments, “match” does not mean 50-50, it simply means that some state money must be contributed.) Here, South Dakota paid the remaining $1.6 million for foster care–which means that the more children there are in foster care, the more it costs the state. The idea that South Dakota somehow profits from having children in foster care is simply false.

Ms. Sullivan compounds her fantasy by by talking about “bonus money,” which some states receive when they move children out of foster care and into adoption. This “bonus money” is portrayed as yet another way in which South Dakota profits from kidnapping Indian children. But there is no punch line to this story: Ms. Sullivan concludes that “In 10 years, this adoption bonus program has brought South Dakota almost a million dollars.” In other words, less than $100,000 a year–it was just over $60,000 in 2010–which does not alter the fact that removing children from their homes is a net cost to the state, not a profit center.

Ms. Sullivan’s inability to deal with basic arithmetic is a consistent theme of her three-part series. One of her tricks is to quote friendly sources for purported statistics when, in fact, the claims made by those sources are demonstrably false. Which means that Ms. Sullivan either was too lazy to check the claims made by the sources who said what she wanted to hear, or else knew they were not telling the truth but quoted them uncritically anyway. Here are two examples:

Bill Napoli was on the state Senate Appropriations Committee until he retired three years ago. He says he remembers when the state first saw the large amounts of money the federal government was sending the Department of Social Services in the late 1990s.

“When that money came down the pike, it was huge,” Napoli says. “That’s when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families.”

Of course, records are kept. If Ms. Sullivan had wanted to report the truth, rather than serve her sensational liberal agenda, she could have looked them up. Here is what she would have found:

    Average Monthly Number of Children In Foster Care

FY 94 — 487
FY 95 — 456
FY 96 — 427
FY 97 — 469
FY 98 — 520
FY 99 — 540

So the increase from 1994 to 1999 was a whopping 11%, hardly a “huge…influx.”

Then we have Ms. Sullivan’s cozy relationship with Peter Lengkeek, her favorite source. It is Lengkeek, Tribal Treasurer of the Crow Creek reservation, who accuses Child Protection Services of “kidnapping,” with Sullivan’s evident approval. Lengkeek is Sullivan’s primary source for the claim that Indian children are nearly always placed in white foster homes:

The Crow Creek tribe has lost more than 33 children in recent years. The reservation only has 1,400 people. Last year Lengkeek asked social service officials to tell him where the children were and who they were placed with.

Seven months later, he received a list. Lengkeek says every single child was placed in a white foster home.

So, did Sullivan ask to see the list? Apparently not. In fact, on February 23, 2011–the day after the request was made, not seven months later–Virgena Wieseler, Director of the Division of Child Protective Services, sent Mr. Lengbeek an email with the data he asked for. This was her response to his inquiry. Note that 29 of 33 children were under the supervision of the Crow Creek Tribal Court:

Children from Crow Creek Tribe in Tribal Court out of the Chamberlain Office — 29

* Trial Reunification = 1
* Relative Placement = 8
* Foster Care with Relative = 3
* Foster Care off the Reservation = 8 (2 are in Native American homes)
* Boarding School = 3
* Group Care Center = 1
* Residential Treatment Center = 5

Children from Crow Creek Tribe in State Court out of the Chamberlain Office = 4

* Relative Placement = 1
* Foster Care off the Reservation = 3

So it appears that Mr. Lengbeek was simply lying, and Laura Sullivan either was too lazy to check out his claim, or knew he was lying and deliberately deceived NPR’s listeners.

All things considered, NPR’s series on South Dakota’s child welfare system is one of the worst examples of biased–and not just biased, but outright false–journalism we have come across in a long time.

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