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BIA, FBI hear stories of child abuse, vow to 'make improvements' at Spirit Lake

February 27, 2013

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — Samuel Merrick Sr. stood at a microphone, faced a line of federal officials arrayed on a stage and said he wanted to look each of them in the eyes as he talked about his tribe’s problems.

But he couldn’t, he said, because diabetes has dimmed his eyes.

Minutes later, Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, left the stage and strode to where Merrick stood.

“I want to talk to you eye to eye,” Purdon said.

So began a three-hour town hall discussion here Wednesday between members of the Spirit Lake Nation and top officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies, a meeting arranged by the BIA after prodding from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The primary subject: the safety of Spirit Lake’s children.

“This is very personal to me,” Purdon said, speaking to Merrick and about 125 other tribal members, trying to assure them that his office is committed to helping Spirit Lake resolve problems of child abuse and bring justice to sexual predators.

The visiting officials provided updates on what the BIA has done since taking over child protection services on the reservation on Oct. 1 and how the FBI and BIA are investigating and prosecuting cases.

But the officials also listened as a steady stream of tribal members spoke, some angrily, others despairingly, about failures in federal, state and tribal systems meant to protect children and families.

They listened as a man spoke haltingly about his 14-year-old daughter, who he said committed suicide when nothing was done after she and a friend were assaulted, and she had to endure taunts and beatings for speaking out. “Before she took her life, she told me she wished she never stepped forward,” he said.

They heard from a woman who told of waking regularly at 3 a.m. to screams of her 2-year-old child, who had been “brutally beaten” by an assailant who was not prosecuted.

Larry Roberts, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs, said afterward he thought the meeting had been helpful, that the officials were able to show progress on some fronts “and we were able to hear directly from the community.”

But Roberts, a member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, also said he worries that looming budget cuts scheduled to start on Friday may jeopardize funding for social services and law enforcement.

“The sequester is going to hit pretty hard all across Indian Country,” he said.

Official: ‘Not every rumor is true’

Roberts said the BIA had established a 24-hour, seven-day hotline for reporting suspected child abuse and taken fingerprints for background checks on 44 prospective foster parents since a mobile fingerprinting unit was brought to the reservation last fall.

The BIA has worked with the tribe to transfer and review all social service records, he said, and all case management records are current — fixing a deficiency identified in a string of BIA annual reports when the tribe handled those programs itself. Also, the BIA is working closely with the tribal court and has put about 40 people through training at UND as mandatory reporters of child abuse.

“We are taking every report seriously and investigating every report,” Roberts said, including those filed by Thomas Sullivan, an administrator with the Administration for Children and Families.

Roberts said some of the specific allegations made by Sullivan in his 12 reports over the past eight months turned out to be false. Others contained “inaccurate information,” while others cited already active cases.

Purdon said “every single allegation that gets made about a crime against a child in this community gets investigated.” Some cases lack enough evidence or eyewitness accounts to prosecute, he said. Other investigations take a long time.

“We put a priority on these matters,” Purdon said. “We are working to remove these most dangerous predators from your community.”

Purdon and others offered to stay through the afternoon to talk with people about specific cases. “But not every case is going to lead to a charge,” he cautioned. “Not every rumor is true.”

Programs set

Since the BIA takeover on Oct. 1, the bureau has detailed 19 social workers from across the country to Spirit Lake to provide temporary help, Roberts said, but he acknowledged the need for greater consistency with permanent staffers.

He said the BIA and other agencies plan a child and family welfare fair at Spirit Lake on March 12, a program on child abuse awareness on March 14, and a program on sexual assault prevention and education April 16-17.

People in federal, state and tribal offices “are working their tails off,” Roberts said, “but we’re going to need this community’s support.”

The community needs more federal support, tribal members said, and several made pleas for a family development and counseling center. Others said the tribe needs to foster more parental responsibility and family values.

Josh Johnson, an administrator with the Devils Lake Public Schools, said that about 200 students from Spirit Lake are in Devils Lake schools (among 500 Indian students in all), and he has seen “little change” in the level of BIA services since the Oct. 1 takeover.

Case management is inconsistent, he said, communication between educators, parents and guardians is lacking, and too many foster care placements are “unsuccessful,” with students being moved three or four times in a short period.

The district is willing to work with the BIA, the tribe and others to make improvements, he said, because “education is the key to the future of the Spirit Lake Nation.”

Sharp criticism

Some at the meeting directed sharp criticism at tribal officials, especially Mark Little Owl, hired by the tribe last summer as director of tribal social services.

Several noted that Little Owl faces charges in Grand Forks District Court stemming from a domestic disturbance at his ex-wife’s home in the city last year. Little Owl denies the charges. A preliminary hearing has been set for March 15.

“Why are you still sitting there?” Robin Poorbear demanded, glaring at Little Owl. “You can’t even take care of your own family!”

Lavonne Albert said, “Mark, you owe this tribe an apology for coming in here after what you did.”

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton tried to intervene, saying it wasn’t the time for personnel discussions, but Albert continued. “They need to listen to the people, Roger,” she said, pointing to the federal officials, and someone in the audience cried, “Quit bullying us!” That drew a round of applause.

Myra Pearson, a former tribal chairwoman, pleaded for a more cooperative approach to the tribe’s problems. “We’re always pointing fingers at each other,” she said.

She said the tribe needs to stress parental responsibility and a stronger work ethic among young people.

“I want to be part of the solution,” she said. “We’re not going to fix things by sitting here and pointing fingers.”


Molly McDonald, a former tribal judge who has criticized tribal government’s handling of the child protection crisis at Spirit Lake, said that she and other advocates “fought all weekend” to make sure Wednesday’s meeting would be open.

She also faulted BIA and tribal leaders for scheduling the meeting in the morning and at the Spirit Lake Casino and Hotel. More people would have attended but were working or felt intimidated, she said.

“A lot of threats have been made” against tribal members who have challenged tribal officials, she said.

Yankton denied there has been intimidation.

He thanked the visiting officials, but he said he wasn’t happy that Hoeven hadn’t attended after prodding the Interior Department to arrange the session. “I told Hoeven that the next time he does this (pushes a town hall meeting) to be here,” he said.

Representatives from the North Dakota offices of Hoeven and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., did sit in on the meeting.

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572 ext. 1102; or send email to



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