Last updated on 2013.05.16
So that's what the governor was so upset about.
Last week Governor Dennis Daugaard pre-emptively rebutted an investigative report from National Public Radio on South Dakota's foster care system and our state's failure to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act. He issued a press release blasting NPR reporter Laura Sullivan for clear bias and shoddy reporting. Daugaard's attack focused on charges of conflict of interest in his position as Lieutenant Governor and executive director of the Children's Home Society, which draws millions in federal funds for the foster care services it provides.
A week later, NPR has put up part one of the three-part report by Sullivan and Amy Walters. This first report doesn't mention Daugaard, although one paragraph in the introduction to the investigative series suggests the dish on Daugaard is coming:
Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids. Among them is Children's Home Society, the state's largest foster care provider, which has close ties with top government officials. It used to be run by South Dakota's Gov. Dennis Daugard [sic]. An NPR investigation has found that Daugard was on the group's payroll while he was lieutenant governor — and while the group received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. It's an unusual relationship highlighting the powerful role money and politics play in South Dakota's foster care system [Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, "Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families," NPR, 2011.10.25].
(Governor Daugaard may also wish to add bad spellchecking to his list of complaints.)
I will agree with the Governor in so far as his work for Children's Home Society during his tenure as lieutenant governor is far from some great political secret that only an investigative report could unearth.
But so far, the report is much less individual gotcha journalism against one man and more an indictment of what looks like a corrupt and racist social services system that targets Native American youth to draw big federal payments.
In South Dakota, Native American children make up only 15 percent of the child population, yet they make up more than half the children in foster care. An NPR News investigation has found that the state is removing 700 native children every year, sometimes in questionable circumstances. According to a review of state records, it is also largely failing to place native children with their relatives or tribes.
According to state records, almost 90 percent of the kids in family foster care are in non-native homes or group care [Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, "Incentives and Cultural Bias Fuel Foster System," NPR, 2011.10.25].
Sullivan and Walters find that even as the state disproportionately places Lakota children in white homes, Lakota foster families still wait to get kids:
Marcella Dion... [is] a native foster home provider on the Crow Creek reservation and has lots of room.
Her home's been empty for six years.
"I was like, 'Whoa, what's going on,'" she says. "I got my [Indian Child Welfare license]. No kids."
Then there's Suzanne Crow, also from Crow Creek.
"I've been a foster parent here for over a year," she said. "They've never called me for any Indian kids."
In that year, hundreds of native children in South Dakota were placed in white foster homes. Officials on the Pine Ridge reservation, several hours away, also say they have 20 empty homes [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].
Now one can argue that, with economic conditions worse on the reservations than in white South Dakota, one would expect there to be more Native American children in need of foster services and fewer Native American families with the wherewithal to provide them. But Sullivan and Walters find a perverse financial incentive for the state of South Dakota to take Native American kids out of their homes:
Sometimes, though, it's not just cultural differences. Jolene Abourezk worked for the department for seven years. She says when she worked there, removing kids was expected.
Department officials told her, "It's good, you are doing a good job for taking more kids," Abourezk says. "It's just the norm here. It happens so often people don't question it. So you know if something happens all the time the same way, people don't question it anymore. It's just how it's done.
...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 [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].
And we have made our own rules to make Native American kids even more profitable:
Then there's the bonus money. Take for example something the federal government calls the "adoption incentive bonus." States receive money if they move kids out of foster care and into adoption — about $4,000 a child. But according to federal records, if the child has "special needs," a state can get as much as $12,000.
A decade ago, South Dakota designated all Native American children "special needs," which means Native American children who are permanently removed from their homes are worth more financially to the state than other children.
In 10 years, this adoption bonus program has brought South Dakota almost a million dollars [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].
Sullivan and Walters talk to former state legislator Bill Napoli, who saw the foster rolls and federal money ballooning in the 1990s. Napoli says the Legislature couldn't rein in social services, since the money came straight from the federal government.
Sullivan and Walters also talk to former governor Bill Janklow, who seems oblivious to the plight of Native American children and instead says that nearly one hundred million dollars in annual federal aid is "incredibly important":
"I mean look, we're a poor state," he says. "We're not a high income state. We're like North Dakota without oil. We're like Nebraska without Omaha and Lincoln. We don't have resources. We don't have wealth. We don't have high income jobs. We don't have factories opening here hiring people in high wage jobs" [Sullivan and Walters, 2011.10.25].
Maybe Janklow said much more on the issue off tape, but the above comment seems to say, "We need the money. Who cares how we get it?" (Plus, it's not exactly the sales pitch our current governor gives to sell our state to potential residents and entrepreneurs.)
As NPR rolls this story out, Governor Daugaard should be concerned about much more than personal political damage that may come from his association with a private group making big money off foster care. The governor and all of us should be much more gravely concerned about a system that appears to target our Native American neighbors, tear their families apart, and perpetuate the same racist abuses our forefathers committed for over a century with assimilationist Indian boarding schools, all for the sake of pumping more federal dollars into our lackluster state economy.
- Nathan Rott, "A Fight for Her Grandchildren Mirrors a Native Past," NPR, 2011.10.25