Slandering the Red States, Part VI: Laura Sullivan Responds

NPR’s Laura Sullivan did a three-part series on Indian children in South Dakota, and the role of that state’s Department of Social Services in providing foster care for such children. The essence of NPR’s sensationalized account was that the state kidnaps Indian children from their homes for profit. I, in return, have done five posts critiquing the NPR story, the last of which, with links to the earlier posts, is here. In connection with my posts, I sent emails to Laura Sullivan asking questions about her reporting. Those questions went unanswered until a number of our readers emailed Ms. Sullivan, urging her to respond. Within a matter of hours, she did so. Thanks to all of our readers who wrote to Ms. Sullivan.

Below, I set forth the questions that I asked Ms. Sullivan in my emails, followed by her answers and then the follow-up questions to which I am asking her to respond. For clarity, I have bolded my original questions and put Ms. Sullivan’s answers in italics, and have given my follow-up questions letter designations.

1) Why did you tell NPR’s listeners that DSS “kidnaps” Indian children from reservations, when in fact DSS can act only pursuant to an order of a tribal court or a request from tribal law enforcement?

I did not report that DSS kidnaps children. A person interviewed as part of my reporting, Peter Lengkeek, says he and his tribe sees it as kidnapping. DSS says it’s not.

Follow-up questions:

a) Does that mean that you are undecided on the question whether DSS kidnaps Indian children?
b) Do you agree that any claim that the state’s agencies kidnap Indian children for financial gain would be false?
c) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children, why did your series use the word “kidnapping” several times?
d) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children, why did you quote Peter Lengkeek saying, “It’s kidnapping. That’s how we see it,” with apparent approval and without any response or contradiction?
e) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children for profit, why didn’t you tell your listeners that the Department of Social Services takes custody of Indian children on reservations only at the direction of a tribal court or the request of tribal law enforcement?
f) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children, why did you imply that the state was effectively threatened with a kidnapping charge?

And then they did something they had never done before. They passed a resolution warning the state that if it did not return the Yellow Robe Children, it would be charged with kidnapping and prosecuted.

Nobody thought it would work. But a few weeks later, a car pulled up outside of Howe’s house with Antoinette, Rashauna and the two twins, who were now 2 1/2 years old.

“Antoinette came in and said ‘Grandma, Grandma. We get to stay! We get to stay!'” Howe says.

The state offered no explanation or apology.

g) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children, why did you repeatedly describe DSS “taking” Indian children without explaining that the agency was taking custody at the direction of tribal authorities? E.g.:

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

Department Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon says they’re dealing with abject poverty and substance abuse and have to do what’s best for the kids, which sometimes means driving onto a reservation and taking a child. …

The children were taken off the reservation by South Dakota’s Department of Social Services for a year and a half after a social worker heard an unsubstantiated rumor about their mother’s possible abuse of prescription pills. …

As the singing started, they slowly swayed, knowing that even now, social services can come back. Even now, at anytime, they can take the children.

h) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota profits by “taking” Indian children, why did you say, “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?”
i) If you didn’t mean to suggest that South Dakota profits by “taking” Indian children, why did you say, “Few social workers would wish for more cases. A close review of South Dakota’s budget shows there’s a financial incentive for the department as a whole to remove more children.”
j) How can there be a “financial incentive for the department as a whole to remove more children” if any federal subsidies are less than the cost of foster care and other expenses to the state?
k) Would you be surprised to learn that many of your listeners understood you to be saying that the State kidnaps Indian children for profit?

2) My second question was more of a request: Will you send me a copy of the tape of your interview with Kim Malsam-Rysdon and Vergina Wieseler of South Dakota’s Department of Social Services? I believe they told you, among other things, that the “kidnapping” claim is ridiculous and that DSS acts in response to requests from tribal authorities, and that you deliberately suppressed the information you got from them so that you could peddle a false but more sensational story. I think the tape will demonstrate this.

We spent a year trying to get DSS to respond. They gave us 30 minutes. Everything they told us is in the story.

I don’t understand this answer. So will you give me a copy of the tape? If not, why not?

We have repeatedly requested to speak with Governor Daugaard, on the record, about these issues. His office repeatedly declined these requests. We continue to extend that an invitation as our reporting continues.

Does this mean that you are planning to report further on these issues? If so, will you correct any wrong impression you may have given your listeners that South Dakota kidnaps Indian children for profit?

3) What is the source for your claim that South Dakota receives “almost a hundred million dollars a year” from the federal government for foster care?

Your link goes to the budget for the entire Department of Social Services. It indicates that in FY 2010, the federal contribution to all children’s services, of which foster care is only a tiny part, was a little over $59 million. There is no line item for federal contribution to foster care. And, in fact, South Dakota’s entire budget for foster care is only approximately $8 million. So how do you justify your $100 million claim?

4) What calculations did you carry out that supported your conclusion that South Dakota makes a profit by “kidnapping” Indian children and putting them into foster care?

That is not my conclusion. See my story:

Do you agree, then, that any such claim would be false?

5) What efforts did you make to check the accuracy of the stories you were told by the Native Americans you interviewed for your series? In particular, what did you do to verify the information you got from Peter Lengkeek, who evidently lied to you? Why did you pass on his misrepresentations without verifying them?

The state says it gave Peter Lengkeek data a day after he asked for it. Lengkeek gave me a tape recording of a conversation he had with DSS division head Virgena Wieseler seven months earlier of him asking for the data and her promising to give it to him.

You didn’t answer my question. Virgena Wieseler sent Mr. Lengkeek an email on February 23, 2011, eight months before you aired your series on NPR. This email said nothing like what Mr. Lengkeek claimed it did, as I pointed out here. Mr. Lengkeek evidently was lying, and you repeated his lie on your program. What efforts did you make to verify what Mr. Lengkeek told you about the information he got from the state? Did you see Ms. Wieseler’s email? Did you ask to see it?

Will you send me a copy of the tape recording that Mr. Lengkeek gave you?

There are obviously grave problems on South Dakota’s Indian reservations that impact Indian children. Why didn’t you talk about those problems and the real reasons why Indian children sometimes have to be removed from their homes, rather than trying to demonize South Dakota’s state employees?

I talked about those problems at length.

I leave it to our readers to review the NPR programs and judge whether they did, in fact, fairly acknowledge the problems that Indian children face, especially on reservations, or whether they idealized reservation life, took dubious stories from Native Americans at face value without checking into them, and tried to shift blame from Indian parents to South Dakota’s social service agencies.

I look forward to receiving Ms. Sullivan’s answers to my follow-up questions. I will also forward this post to NPR’s ombudsman, who is conducting an investigation into this series of programs.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.