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North Dakota: Child Abuse at Reservation Is Topic for 3 Lawmakers

February 19, 2013

Federal officials will hold a town hall meeting on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota this month to discuss the reservation’s child sexual abuse problem, which last year led the federal government to take over the tribe’s social services program.

Residents have complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal prosecutors have done too little to stop child abuse, which officials acknowledge is commonplace on Spirit Lake and has reached epidemic levels, whistle-blowers say. North Dakota’s senators and a representative are expected to attend the meeting.

The federal government took over the tribe’s social services in October, and in one month federal officials said they had investigated more than 100 cases of reported child abuse. More recent figures are not available, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were killed on the reservation after being raped and sodomized.

In recent months, residents have protested outside tribal headquarters about the lack of prosecutions of those accused of child abuse, and what they say is a continuing failure to protect Spirit Lake’s children. The reservation’s registered child sex offender list includes the man who plays Santa Claus at tribal events, as well as a brother of Roger Yankton Sr., the tribal chairman.

Mark Little Owl, 34, the official hired by the tribe to oversee its social services, was arrested in December on several charges, including domestic violence, after he punched a woman in the face, the authorities said. He was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after throwing a child out of a bedroom where the assault was taking place, according to court documents.

The town hall meeting, announced by Senators John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican, will include an update from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on federal efforts, according to a news release. A date for the meeting has not yet been set.

“We have pressed them not only to use every legal and administrative measure in their jurisdiction to ensure the safety of children on the Spirit Lake Reservation, but also to be transparent and forthcoming with tribal members about what they’re doing,” the lawmakers said in a statement.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs said that among the changes it has made since taking over tribal social services was imposing a rule that required all adults who live with foster children to have their fingerprints taken.

While fingerprinting in such circumstances is already mandated by federal law, it was not being done regularly at Spirit Lake, officials said. Reservation residents say they believe significant numbers of foster children on the reservation have been sexually abused.



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