Lakota People’s Law Project “Who’s Watching the Watchdog” Says NPR Ombudsman Got Facts Wrong in Critique of NPR Series on South Dakota Seizure of Lakota Children

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The Lakota People’s Law Project has just issued “Who’s Watching the Watchdog? – A Critique of NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ Egregious Errors in Attacking Laura Sullivan and Amy Waters’ Reporting on Native Foster Care”. The report alleges that the former founding editor of Wall Street Journal Americas and now NPR Ombudsman’s 80 page report written over 22 months made six very serious errors which invalidate his findings, and the data justify the original airing of the Peabody Award winning report on Native foster care in South Dakota.

The Lakota Future

The Lakota Future

Schumacher-Matos suggested that South Dakota was treated unfairly instead of the thousands of Lakota children forcibly taken from their communities.

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The Lakota People’s Law Project has just issued “Who is Watching the Watch Dog– A Critique of NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ Egregious Errors in Attacking Laura Sullivan and Amy Waters’ Reporting on Native Foster Care”. The report alleges that the former founding editor of Wall Street Journal Americas and now NPR Ombudsman’s 80 page report written over 22 months made six very serious errors which invalidate his findings. The data justify the original airing of the Peabody Award winning report on Native foster care in South Dakota.

In 2011, NPR aired a Peabody Award-winning-series by investigative reporters Laura Sullivan and Amy Waters about the questionable removal of large numbers of Lakota Indian children from their families by the State of South Dakota’s foster care program. The in-depth report revealed that four times as many Indian children were removed from their families as White children, and that 90% of the forcibly removed Lakota children were placed in non-Indian foster care, an apparently systematic failure to comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. In response to complaints by the Governor of South Dakota, National Public Radio’s Ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, the founding Editor of the Wall Street Journal Americas, embarked upon what appears to be one the longest, most expensive ombudsperson's investigations in the history of contemporary media.

In August, 2013, after 22 months, Mr. Schumacher-Matos issued a 35,000 word report. Highly critical of journalists Sullivan and Walters, the ombudsperson’s report questioned NPR’s decision to air the series, calling it an example of “story-telling gone awry.”

Incredibly, the thrust of Schumacher-Matos’ report was to suggest that the Government of South Dakota was being unfairly treated, rather than the thousands of Native American children who have been forcibly, and unlawfully removed from their extended families and tribes in violation of ICWA.NPR’s editorial board wasted no time in firmly and unanimously rejecting Schumacher-Matos’ findings as inaccurate. They wrote:

"We find [the ombudsman’s] unprecedented effort to 're-report' parts of the story to be deeply flawed… 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.”

Time Magazine's Jack Dickey and South Dakota’s principal newspaper, the Rapid City Journal have both disputed the central claims of Schumacher-Matos’ report, along with his conclusion that the three-part series on ICWA never should have aired as written.Richard Wexler, the former executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, takes on Schumacher-Matos’ work point-by-point. The Lakota People’s Law Project has produced “Who Is Watching the Watchdog?” specifically to supplement Wexler’s detailed critique, with additional substantive and methodological criticisms.

The Lakota People’s Law Project cited the following major errors in Schumacher-Matos’ report:

1.    The report says that child removal rates in South Dakota were comparable to other states, supporting the view that nothing unusual is happening to the Lakota; that Sullivan and Walters created a scandal out of faulty data. Yet the data show that something highly unusual is going on. From 1995-2002 South Dakota’s foster care enrollment increased 86%, while the nation’s only increased by 13.8%.

2.    For purposes of calculating child removal rates, Schumacher-Matos equates removal by the state with the voluntary placement of children with family members by the parents. The placement of Lakota children with other family members is a long-standing custom. It does not imply the need to move children to a safer environment. It is definitely not the same as a state directed seizure of children.

3.    Schumacher-Matos claims that Native foster care revenues do not provide an economic benefit to the state. Instead, he views the economic impact of Native foster care spending as an expense. He ignores the employment created by these expenditures and the need for lower income states to maximize federal revenue. The economic stimulus effect of these types of programs has been demonstrated in the state’s estimate of the excess revenues it will realize despite increased costs due to the Medicaid expansion of Obamacare.

4.    Schumacher-Matos failed to check information, provided by South Dakota sources, that foster care Medicaid expenditures in the 2010 fiscal year totaled $12.7 million for Medicaid. Yet data provided by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shows that S. D. foster care Medicaid expenses were actually $47 million—providing four times the economic stimulus than the obmbudsperson reported. These data also show that total foster care revenues were in excess of $100 million per year, which vindicates Sullivan and Water’s estimates and discredits the state’s primary claim that annual revenues from all foster care were only $68 million.

5.     Schumacher-Matos claims that Sullivan and Waters ignored the fact that there are not enough state licensed native foster care homes: “There is no exploring [by Sullivan and Walters] the inconvenient unavailability of properly licensed [Native] foster homes." If the ombudsman had checked, he would have known that the designation of suitable foster care homes belongs to the tribes according to ICWA and that tribally approved homes were not receiving placements by the state. According to Lakota People’s Law Project Attorney Chase Iron Eyes, Federal law makes clear that tribes have the power, in addition to the State, to license foster homes—which substantially undermines Schumacher-Matos' argument, since he disregards tribally-licensed homes as "incorrect."

6.     Schumacher-Matos asserts: "Tribal courts are largely sovereign and are not 'the state.'…The tribal courts place Indian children in white foster families or group centers at similar or even higher rates than state courts.” But according to Judge BJ Jones, a professor of Law at the University of North Dakota, and a South Dakota tribal court judge for over twenty years, tribal courts in South Dakota usually play only a small role in placement decisions.

These are just six errors demonstrating Schumacher-Matos’ misunderstanding of the key issues at stake in the debate over South Dakota’s apparently illegal practice of stripping extraordinary numbers of Native children from their communities. These errors, combined with many other errors cited by Richard Wexler, are puzzling, especially given Mr. Schumacher-Matos’ experience as a journalist, editor, and the amount of time and resources he spent developing his report.

The ongoing ICWA crisis in South Dakota is real, as reported since 2011 by NPR’s investigative team—contrary to Schumacher-Matos’ assessment. According to Daniel P. Sheehan, Chief Counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, "the most important way the federal government can end this crisis is to assist Lakota leaders in developing tribal, federally funded, Title IV family services and foster care programs. This plan eliminates the State as an intermediary, making it much more economically efficient, and gives the tribes their rightful authority over decisions relating to their children and families." This special report "Sovereignty and Self-Governance in the Provision of Child and Family Services" outlines this solution.

"These tribally-run programs will take time to put in place, but they can—and should—be established as rapidly as practicable," said Phyllis Young, Councilwoman at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The Lakota People’s Law Project, based in Rapid City, SD, has been working with Lakota leaders since 2005 to address issues related to the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Lakota People’s Law Project is sponsored by the Romero Institute, a 501(c)(3) not for profit organization located in Santa Cruz, CA. Named for human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the Institute uses a combination of public education, community organizing, and legal capabilities to bring about structural change to address the issues that threaten the human family.

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