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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

They beat kids, And then came the press.

In the Native American tradition, children are sacred.  Black Elk gives the reason they are so regarded:  "Grown men may learn from very little children, for the hearts of little children are pure, and, therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."  Another Native American proverb notes that children ask questions for which the wisest and most knowledgeable adults do not have an answer.    Black Elk further explains the purity of children:  "

"But the children are closer to the truth. Have you ever noticed how quickly they can let go of resentments? Have you ever noticed how free they are of prejudice? Have you ever noticed how well the children listen to their bodies? Maybe adults need to be more like children."
Our culture regards children as "innocent,"  but that is a misleading term.  It is accurate in the sense that children are not "guilty" of anything because they have not acquired the cognitive level that gives them a knowledge of what guilt is.  It is more accurate to describe children as being uncontaminated.  They have not acquired the guile, connivance, greed, and lust for power that drives the adult world.  But anyone who has had children knows they possess instinctive ploys to avoid punishment and restrictions.  In other words, they lie.  And they know they are lying to avoid consequences unpleasant to them.  But we tend to excuse those lies as a part of childhood, because they do not come from resentment, prejudice, or malice.  Those are contaminants they acquire from the culture around them.  Those are the traits that much of adult culture is formed around.

There are children who are troublesome from birth.  We spend a lot of time arguing about whether these problem children result from nature or nurture, from inborn tendencies or traits they learn from the society around them.  All children go through difficult stages.  That is part of being a child.  But many children are "problem."  They have difficulties that require special treatment.  Those difficulties range from matters that can be dealt with in special education classes to ones that result in institutionalization.  The institution may be one for developmental issues or be a detention center, what we used to call a reform school.  Whatever their purpose, their function and their end results are the measure of their worthiness and success.  It is disheartening to learn of their failures.  The latest news of failure comes from Plankinton, SD, which has quite a history of dysfunction.  

In the late 1990s Gov. Bill Janklow, without telling the state legislature, decided to turn the Plankinton reform school into a Marine-style boot camp.  He claimed he could do better at dealing with troubled youth than their parents.  Fourteen-year-old Gina Score, an overweight child with a history of shop-lifting, came to the Plankinton boot camp on a Friday in July 1999.  By the following Wednesday, she was dead.

The staff had taken a group of the girls out on a forced run during which Gina struggled.  After returning, Gina collapsed, and attendants, finding no alarming symptoms, decided to wait out the episode.  However, as the siege progressed she showed a temperature of 108 F. and died of what a doctor said was the worst case of heat stroke he had ever seen.

As a result, the Plankinton detention center was closed in 2000.

In 2004, the state contracted with a private corrections firm, Cornell Companies out of Houston, Texas, to reopen the facility.  In May, the company received its first inmates.  But in August it notified officials that it could not afford to operate.  Cornell said it cost $179 per inmate per day to function, but the state was authorized to pay $125.27.  Cornell closed the detention center down in the fall.

In 2006, the state contracted with another company in the jail-running business, Clinicare Corporation headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.  It named its iteration of the Plankinton facility the Aurora Plains Academy.  Its website presents the place as a full-scale mental health facility offering therapy for everything from addictions to the full gamut of mental disorders.

The Aurora Plains Academy has burst into the news again, however, as a juvenile detention operation.  This time the news is an investigative report published by South Dakota News Watch.  The source of this investigative report is significant for who did it and the journalistic procedures with which it was done.

South Dakota News Watch is a nonprofit community journalism organization composed of former and current news executives associated with major media, mostly newspapers, throughout the state.  It publishes stories that the legacy media do not have the resources or the nerve to publish.  Bart Pfankuch, a former editor of the Rapid City Journal, wrote the series of stories that detail the abuse of residents at the Aurora Plains Academy.  Often such stories in the legacy media keep names and details confidential in order to protect sources from embarrassment and retaliation. When stories do not contain the documentation that confirms them, they lose credibility, no matter how diligently reporters may verify their sources.  Events happen to real, identifiable people.  Events reported about anonymous people remain anonymous.  They supply no defense to accusations of "fake news."  Mr. Pfankuch follows a rule of journalism that once prevailed in naming the victims of abuse and neglect at the Aurora Plains Academy and quotes his sources and shows photographic evidence.  The events he relates are testified to by real people with real identities, and that gives his account power. 
[I point out, parenthetically, that when I was a young reporter, the rule was to identify anyone named in a story with name, age, and address.  The reason  was that  the more precisely  a person was identified, whether an actor or witness in the story, the more credible and reliable the story.]

The South Dakota News Watch series not only provides news about a state-supervised program, it brings journalism in the state to a level that has notably been lacking in the state's media.  The timidity and lack of journalistic enterprise was embarrassing.  Bill Janklow publicly cowed the press, which was reluctant to investigate and report on him.  Janklow sued Viking Press and author Peter Matthiessen  for libel in a suit that was initially dismissed, appealed, and eventually dismissed again.  Janklow's efforts, while unsuccessful, did intimidate the state press to be very, very careful.  A lawyer in the case called Janklow's tactics "censorship by libel suit."  The News Watch seems to break out of that state of fearfulness which has  held the South Dakota press in its grip for so long.  That is not to say that the News Watch will be infallible, as its secretary recently made a rather remarkable journalistic blunder.  Nevertheless, The South Dakota News Watch is a step forward and away from the spinelessness and sometimes embarrassing groveling that has characterized the state's press in the past.  The local Aberdeen press has even run its series on the Aurora Plains Academy.

The press, however, is restrained in its pursuit of facts.  The South Dakota Legal Code gives government officials unusual authority to withhold and suppress information.  And the state has no freedom of information laws, as do most other states, whereby the press and interested people may apply to obtain state records of performance.  Another obstacle is the extreme application of privacy rules.  When government agencies misperform, officials can routinely cover up the misdeeds of their departments by saying they cannot provide information because they are not permitted to discuss personnel matters.  The head of the company that runs Aurora Plains Academy took this course in responding to Bart Pfankuch's story on the Academy:
"As with any treatment facility like Aurora Plains Academy we are prohibited by law from publicly disclosing information about the activities, treatment and actions of residents because of their rights to confidentiality."
But Bart Pfankuch's details of mistreatment with documented names and statements by people involved are difficult to counter with vague denials.

And that gets to the substance of the series.  Black Elk provides an insight into the untarnished natural state of children.  But the science reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows how children can be harmed:
"Research has shown that striking a child, yelling at or shaming them can elevate stress hormones and lead to changes in the brain's architecture. Harsh verbal abuse is also linked to mental health problems in preteens and adolescents."
That is precisely the kind of treatment that the South Dakota News Watch series records.  Young people who are committed to detention facilities need to witness and be treated with the most benign and curative behavior on the part of their attendants.  Instead, they are given demonstrations of anger and meanness which reinforce the negative tendencies in their personalities.  They are schooled in malice and acting out, and provided a script for how to behave in future situations. 

I am fortunate to know people who are experienced and respected in dealing with young people with problems.  They stress how such problems have to be met with people who are firm in their benignity and highly educated in how to apply that firmness.  As one of them put it to me, the last thing these kids need is examples of how to be an asshole.

Bart Pfankuch cites people who work hard to provide the kids in their charge with constructive and healing treatment, but it is the mistreatment they receive that has the lasting effect on the inmates.  There aren't that many people out there who are interested in a profession of guiding young people out of troubled lives.  But there are some, and there is a body of science and experience that informs the profession.

The jobs in detention centers are not respected and the pay is geared more for barroom bouncers than for skillful therapists.  To be effective, juvenile detention centers must focus on helping young people, not punishing them.  But as long as detention centers are run by for-profit companies, the bottom line will require to hire cheap, not hire qualified.

The South Dakota News Watch has presented the citizens pf the state with a vivid, detailed examination of a problem that has long existed in the state.  Now that the state has a press that reflects one its perennial problems, it has a chance to make some informed changes in the way it treats juveniles.  And those charges can be part of a national effort.

I hope the News Watch will follow through on keeping us informed.


Porter Lansing said...

Compelling article, Prof. Newquist. Always a pleasure to read your stuff.

larry kurtz said...

Catholicism is hope like gonorrhea is charity. That the Roman Church is trading sainthood for Black Elk after centuries of the rape of American Indians by clergy is rank extortion.

Both South Dakota dioceses are up to their areolae in debt to the white christianic ruling class for covering up crimes against Native Americans committed by pederastic priests where catholic congregations and the state's legislature have engaged in obstruction of justice for decades. Bernie v. Blue Cloud Abbey was one of several cases that ended up before the South Dakota Supreme Court alleging church officials at the time covered up serial sexual abuse taking place at the compound. After helping to broker the sale of the abbey Watertown member of the criminal cult, Lee Schoenbeck, aided by fellow cultist and lobbyist Jeremiah Murphy, forced the South Dakota Legislature to pass laws covering up countless crimes committed by their sect by enacting statutes of limitations.

Pennsylvania used a grand jury for the statewide investigation of predator priests and the Philadelphia Diocese is the bishopric of former Rapid City primate Charlie Chaput but don't expect suspected incel Jason Ravnsborg, Attorney General, former altar boy and member of the Church of the Holy Roman Kiddie Diddlers to take on both South Dakota Dioceses.

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