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Disputed progress on child protection at Spirit Lake

January 22, 2013

Published January 18, 2013
By: Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, INFORUM

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – In the nearly four months since the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs took over child protection services on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, tribal and BIA officials say they’re working well together, the system has been made more professional and accountable and reservation children are safer from abusers and sexual predators.

But critics of Chairman Roger Yankton and his administration say little has changed, predators have been left undisturbed and many children remain vulnerable.

In his 11th “mandated report” concerning suspected child abuse at Spirit Lake, Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator of the federal Administration for Children and Families, tells ACF superiors and other federal officials that he has “seen little that is substantial” to indicate that his detailed allegations have been taken seriously.

Sullivan’s latest report, dated Thursday, was sent to Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, and Sue Settles, human services chief in the BIA’s Office of Indian Services, as well as several top ACF officials.

He accuses the officials of putting more stock in “some of the preposterous fabricated claims made by tribal leaders, by some of the functionaries in your organizations as well as by other government leaders,” than in his reports, which he said are based on information from sources within the Spirit Lake tribe.

Purdon said Friday that he is “not at liberty to talk about ongoing investigations” at Spirit Lake, but “every report that I have received from Mr. Sullivan has been forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”

He said those agencies have followed up with him on their investigations, “and I am very comfortable that the FBI and BIA law enforcement have taken these allegations seriously. … We are committed to holding folks who would abuse children responsible.”

Kids still at risk

Among Sullivan’s latest allegations:

• In his first report, filed more than seven months ago, he had noted that numerous children “had been removed, with little or no notice, from safe off-reservation foster homes and returned to placements in the abusive homes from which they had been removed or in the homes of known sex offenders.” Now, seven months later, none of those children have been moved, he said, and remain “available to be raped daily by their caretakers.”

• Despite his earlier reports of the beating of a woman by her then-husband, a senior BIA criminal investigator, “none of you have even sought to investigate.”

• On Sept. 29, a 13-year-old girl was raped in her home by a man, 37, Sullivan wrote, but no investigator “spoke to or questioned the alleged rapist for more than three weeks,” and a BIA investigator later told the mother that “since the sex was consensual, there was no crime here and that there would be no prosecution.”

• A child removed from her home because of physical abuse was evaluated at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Grand Forks and found to be in need of immediate therapy to overcome a history of physical and sexual abuse. When the mother sought financial assistance from Tribal Social Services, it was denied, Sullivan wrote, allegedly because the social worker feared retaliation because the girl is related to a tribal leader, who is a convicted sex offender.

Other allegations concern the removal of an infant from a safe foster home and return to his biological mother despite the mother’s failure to complete a drug rehabilitation program.

Progress or not?

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said Friday that the bureau’s social services staff in Fort Totten “continues to prioritize and investigate allegations of child abuse and/or neglect,” and the BIA “remains committed to working with the Spirit Lake Tribe to provide for the safety and protection of the Spirit Lake children.”

The BIA bolstered staffing at Fort Totten by hiring a child welfare specialist and social service assistant last month, and two additional child welfare specialists will join the staff when they clear background checks. Other protective services people have been brought in from BIA assignments around the country.

Purdon noted that his office’s caseload from the four North Dakota Indian reservations rose 84 percent from Fiscal Year 2009 to 2012, and he has added staff to focus on violent crime on the reservations.

“I have complete confidence in the FBI in North Dakota and their ability to work cases here,” he said. “The BIA law enforcement people are our partners, and I have a lot of respect for those people who put on the uniform and work on the reservations every day.”

“We have made progress in Indian Country,” Purdon said. “Have we solved everything? No. But I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

However, two Spirit Lake members critical of the situation there said they agree with Sullivan that there is little evidence of improvement.

“The leadership of the tribe, the BIA, FBI and the (Justice Department) cannot afford to look bad so they choose to look the other way and pretend that progress is being made,” Joanne Streifel, a licensed social worker and tribal elder, wrote in an email in response to a request for an interview.

“I do not know what they consider progress when the children that were brought back to the reservation, at the directive of the tribal chief, continue to be in the homes of the sex offenders,” she wrote, “and no one in authority has done anything to change it.”

Molly McDonald, a former tribal judge, said many troubling situations involving children “are being overlooked” by the new BIA-run social services program and the Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services, which retains some responsibilities.

McDonald said she watched recently as a woman, a resident at a rehabilitation center, called reservation police and the BIA social services office several times over a 36-hour period before they agreed to do a welfare check on her children, who reside with their father, a relative of Chairman Roger Yankton.

“I don’t believe progress is being made,” McDonald said.

Hoeven watching

Ryan Bernstein, chief of staff for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and the senator’s point man on Indian issues, said Friday that the office continues to monitor developments at Spirit Lake.

Hoeven went to Spirit Lake and met with Yankton and other tribal leaders in September and urged them to deal quickly and “transparently” with the child protection problems. Shortly after that meeting, the Tribal Council formally asked the BIA to assume responsibility for child protection on the reservation.

“We’re organizing another briefing here (in Washington) with the BIA very soon,” Bernstein said, adding that the new members of the state’s delegation, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, will be invited to participate in those talks “so we’re all on the same page.”

One of the concerns that Hoeven heard when he met with tribal leaders in September involved delays in doing background checks to make sure that children are placed in safe homes. That led to a new pilot project at Spirit Lake involving the use of digital mobile fingerprinting devices to expedite those checks. Under federal law, all adults in a household where children are to be placed must be fingerprinted as part of the background investigation.

Hoeven also has “pushed the BIA and tribal leaders to have frequent meetings, which I understand they’re doing,” Bernstein said, and for the BIA to reach out to other federal agencies, such as the Indian Health Service, to better coordinate their efforts on behalf of children.

‘We’re making strides’

In an interview this week, Yankton said professionals from the BIA’s Aberdeen, S.D., area office were in Fort Totten recently to provide training, including training on the mobile digital fingerprinting.

He said the tribe’s efforts to respond to deficiencies in its social services programs have been hampered “by the negativity” of media reports and the allegations of corruption, indifference and criminality.

“I’ve always said there were discrepancies and inconsistencies in (how the tribe handled) those areas, social services and law and order,” he said. But those problems go back several years, to before he became chairman, he said, and they were and are due in large measure to inadequate funding.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Yankton said, noting that one of the “whistle blowers” who brought attention to Spirit Lake’s child protection problems – Dr. Michael Tilus of the Indian Health Service – “said he knew there were things going back to 2005 or 2006.”

“Where were all these people … Tilus himself … back then?” Yankton asked.

He pointed to a stack of BIA audit reports going back several years, reports that he said documented continuing problems with oversight, accountability and record-keeping related to child protection and other grant-supported services at Spirit Lake.

“Those who are trying to wash this out now are the ones who are caught in those audit reports,” Yankton said.

But “we aren’t objecting to any of the investigations going on,” he said. “We’re not obstructing.

“I’m confident we’re making strides to improve the services. We’re bringing in quality staff, we’re having training, and people come in and find a professional atmosphere where they get the support they need.”

Yankton said he and the Tribal Council are working on economic development and efforts to improve the tribe’s housing stock, hurt badly over the past several years by the rise and spread of Devils Lake. Spirit Lake has a little more than 400 housing units but needs as many as 500 more, he said. About 200 Spirit Lake families are living in nearby communities because there are no suitable options on the reservation.

The lack of work and the poor state of housing contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, crime, despair and domestic abuse, he said. That includes child abuse and difficulties in finding appropriate foster homes for at-risk children.

“We have up to 20 people in some homes,” he said. “You can imagine the emotional problems, the arguments, even if they’re all related.”

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