How South Dakota News Watch uncovered abuses in a youth home and changed state policies

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This is the team of four people who formed and launched South Dakota News Watch in February 2018. Since then, the team has grown by one and produced more than 100 long-form journalism pieces. Bart Pfankuch, who wrote the “Treatment or Trauma” series, is second from the right.

It was a story waiting too long for public attention: Some staff members at a rural facility housing young people with behavioral issues had physically, sexually and psychologically abused the children.

South Dakota News Watch uncovered the story in June — resulting in the governor ordering an overhaul of the inspection processes for all youth treatment facilities in the state. The “Treatment or Trauma?” series exposed the harsh physical restraints on the residents that some employees of the facility regularly used — resulting in facial rug burns, black eyes, bloody noses, bruising and injured limbs. The story relied on a dozen on-the-record interviews and documents hard to obtain in a state with weak public records laws.

Without nonprofit news, this story might not have been told.

A man who worked at an institution for adults with mental disabilities had exposed, through a local TV station, mistreatment of fellow employees by management. He then started hearing from people about abuse at the nearby Aurora Plains Academy in Plankinton, which is state funded but privately run. He had paperwork and a list of sources willing to talk. He pitched the story to multiple newspapers and, though there was interest, he couldn’t find a reporter to take on the story.

Media outlets across South Dakota are declining, with 19 fewer weeklies than the state had 15 years ago and newspaper circulation down 36%, according to a University of North Carolina national study. South Dakota News Watch, though only a year old, was committed to spending time unraveling complicated issues across the state. Its content director, Bart Pfankuch, was formerly an editor of the state’s second-largest daily, the Rapid City Journal, and had 30 years of reporting experience. After many phone calls, he and the tipster met to start what would be a six-month reporting process.

South Dakota News Watch freely shares its content and collaborates with news outlets across the state. As a result, the series was referenced in at least 31 outlets, including nine newspapers and five TV stations. When the Argus Leader, the state’s biggest daily, and the four-state TV station KELOLAND picked up the series, Pfankuch said he knew it was going to be a big story.

Clinicare Corp., which owns Aurora Plains Academy, did not allow News Watch into the facility and declined to comment during the reporting. But after publication, the president of the Wisconsin company wrote an op-ed saying the facility complied with South Dakota state statutes and cooperated with state regulators.

Gov. Kristi Noem ordered an overhaul of the oversight and inspection processes for all youth treatment facilities in the state. After the announcement, a parent wrote Pfankuch and called him her hero.

“In 30 years, I’ve never been called anyone’s hero before,” he said. “But it was because no one would listen.”

South Dakota News Watch, with only two full-time journalists, cannot make up for all of the reporters and news coverage lost in the state, but it can still make a difference. When a story emerges, “there is someone who will listen and look into it,” Pfankuch said.

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This is the first in a series taking you behind the scenes of stories selected by the Institute for Nonprofit News for INN’s Best of Nonprofit News 2019 because of their high impact. Statewide reporting takes time and money but builds trust between journalists and the public. This news matters! And without your financial support, stories like this go untold. If you would like to support this kind of high-quality reporting, please donate to South Dakota News Watch or similar newsrooms in your area. From now until Dec. 31, your gift will be doubled by NewsMatch. And a gift to INN will help us nurture and support these newsrooms year-around. All money raised will contribute to journalism that creates change, informs communities and holds those in power accountable.

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