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North Dakota: Sen. Hoeven wants hearing on American Indian reservation child abuse

July 16, 2012
WDAZ 8 Grand Forks July 14, 2012
GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Republican North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven is pushing the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold hearings about child abuse and neglect on American Indian reservations, according to his deputy chief of staff.

Hearings would be held in Washington, D.C., because more senators could attend and the discussion would draw national exposure, Ryan Bernstein told the Grand Forks Herald ( ) for a story published Saturday.

"We're working with the chairman, and we hope we can get that scheduled soon," Bernstein said. "We're hoping this summer, but if not, right after the August recess."

Both Hoeven and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota are members of the panel.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs review earlier this year detailed problems in tribal social services programs on the state's Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator in Denver for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, called for suspending all state and federal funding to the tribe until it put qualified officials in place to run programs to ensure children are not subjected to physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton has cited staff turnover, high caseloads and inadequate federal funding as problems. Tribal leaders who took office a year ago insist they are making strides, for example offering new training to social services personnel and increasing collaboration between tribal and county social service providers.

"We've re-energized those people," Yankton said.

Uncertainty about jurisdiction appears to be part of the problem, said Bernstein, who is Hoeven's point man on American Indian issues.

At Spirit Lake, "We've called for everybody to sit at the table so there are no gaps," he said. That would include tribal officials, the BIA, the state Indian Affairs office and representatives of county social services.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee until his retirement in 2010, said funding constraints and overworked staffers also cut into the system's effectiveness.

"It breaks your heart," he said. "There aren't enough resources, and there aren't enough people to care. We know we need more help for mental counseling on the reservations, but Congress refuses to provide the money."

Inadequate funding isn't the entire problem, Dorgan said.

"Money is a part of it, but you need tribal officials, school administrators and parents. You need active boys and girls clubs," he said. "Many of these kids are growing up in third-world conditions that are devastating. The rate of suicide for teens on reservations is four times the national average — 10 or 12 times on some. These kids just give up. They think it's hopeless."

Bernstein said the BIA has corrective action plans and Hoeven has pressed the director to implement those and follow up. The senator also has urged the BIA to hire a fulltime onsite social worker at Spirit Lake and to work up a complete social services financial picture, Bernstein said.


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