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By Patrick Springer and Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published July 10 2012

Officials: Spirit Lake infant dies after ignored neglect reports

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – The death Saturday of a 2-month-old girl whose mother was suspected of drug abuse and child neglect is the latest episode in what critics have described as an ongoing crisis of children at risk at Spirit Lake Nation, according to a federal official.

Sources close to the family believe the death was preventable and occurred because the infant was allowed to remain in a risky home because officials on and off the reservation were “passing the buck” due to jurisdictional conflicts.

Roger Yankton, chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, said Tuesday that the tribe is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death, and he said the tribe has been unfairly singled out for its alleged failures in protecting children on this reservation in northeastern North Dakota.

Deborah Kaye Anderson died at her mother’s home in St. Michael after repeated reports of suspected child neglect were filed with Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services, Benson County Social Services and law enforcement agencies, according to Thomas Sullivan, a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families in Denver.

The girl’s mother, Rainey Anderson, was reported for suspected drug use and allegations of neglect of her two other children over the past two years, Molly McDonald, a former tribal court judge, said Tuesday.

Efforts to reach Anderson were unsuccessful. Forum Communications reporters stopped by her home Monday and left word with a close family friend asking for an interview. No response came as of Tuesday evening, nor was Forum Communications able to learn who was caring for Anderson’s other two children.

Because Rainey Anderson is not an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, the tribe’s social services claimed they lacked authority to act, said McDonald, who has brought to the attention of federal officials reports of endangered children and the tribe’s alleged failure to act on the reports.

In one instance last year, McDonald – while still a tribal judge – brought a suspected neglect report against Anderson to the attention of the tribal social services director at the time.

“He said, ‘We have to look out for our own,’ ” McDonald said, meaning enrolled tribal members.

The Spirit Lake Tribe has been reeling under accusations of inaction in dealing with endangered children since April, when a mental health professional wrote a letter warning state and federal officials about chronic and systemic failures dating back five years.

Reports of suspected neglect of the Anderson infant were referred to Benson County Social Services, but that office took no action because the family lived on the reservation, McDonald said.

“These agencies (were) passing the buck back and forth,” McDonald said in an email Sunday reporting the child’s death to Sullivan.

Cheryl Good Iron, a tribal member who has agitated for more accountable government and who led a failed petition drive to remove Yankton from office, said concerned family members repeatedly tried to get Rainey Anderson’s three young children removed from what they regard as an unsafe home.

“They’ve been trying to get these kids taken away for a long time,” Good Iron said. “Nobody did anything about it. They never got any help from anybody.” If someone in authority had stepped in and removed the children, McDonald and Good Iron both said, the infant’s death could have been prevented.

Sullivan, who has spoken out about what he regards as a failure by tribal, state and federal officials to protect children at Spirit Lake, wrote of his latest concerns Sunday in an email addressed to Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, Tara Muhlhauser, who oversees child protection services for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, and Sue Settles, a senior Bureau of Indian Affairs administrator.

“It seems Mr. Purdon that someone, maybe multiple someones, has failed in their basic responsibilities, resulting in child endangerment in the extreme,” he wrote in his email, which was obtained by Forum Communications. “I would hope that if an investigation determined who placed this baby in such extreme danger that person would be charged with the crime of child endangerment.”

Purdon said the Bureau of Indian Affairs police and the FBI are investigating the Anderson infant’s death, but otherwise declined to comment.

Sullivan sounded an alarm last month when he wrote an email highlighting allegations that the tribe was ignoring reports of serious abuse and neglect involving children, including physical and sexual abuse.

“Why is it one little place in the prairie is the center of national attention?” Yankton, the tribal chairman, asked, clearly rankled by recent attention, including a report Saturday in the New York Times.

He said his “transitional” government – he and most of the Tribal Council took office a year ago – has responded to criticisms that followed a review of tribal social services programs by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in February and March. That review found dozens of problems in record-keeping, accountability measures and “high-risk findings” that pose an imminent danger to the health, safety and well-being of children either in placement or referred for protective services.

Yankton added: “We started a year ago to improve the quality of those services, but it takes time to review those things.” With regard to procedures involving at-risk children, such as clarifying jurisdiction of tribal, county and other authorities, he said, “We’re taking corrective action.”

The infant’s body was taken for an autopsy, but the results of the examination were not available Tuesday. While members of the family believe the death could have been prevented, they are hoping the autopsy shows that cause of death was SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Good Iron said.

Becky Carrow of Benson County Social Services said she could not speak about whether the office had received reports of suspected abuse or neglect involving Debora Kaye Anderson.

“A lot of these things come to our county, but Spirit Lake has their own social services,” Carrow said. “A lot of the time we just fax the information over to them.” Benson County and nearby Ramsey County, which includes the city of Devils Lake, have been working with the tribe to improve services on the reservation, including child protection, Carrow said.

As a result of that ongoing collaboration, she said, the agencies have agreed that the tribe will handle child protection responsibilities on the reservation, “whether there’s Indian blood or not.”

“We’ve been kind of helping them get it together,” Carrow said of efforts to help the tribe improve its child protection services, which have been under criticism by federal officials since April.

Muhlhauser, who oversees child protection services for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the department provided a statement to Forum Communications:

“The Department of Human Services absolutely does share Mr. Sullivan’s concern for the welfare of children. Unfortunately, the information in his recent email was inaccurate. This is a case with tribal jurisdiction. We have been informed that federal and state law enforcement and other agencies with jurisdiction have all been involved.”

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokeswoman, issued a statement for the agency: “The death of the child on the Spirit Lake Reservation currently is under investigation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. The Spirit Lake Tribal Council has been informed of the situation and of the investigation underway. In addition, we understand that the Spirit Lake Tribal Services office is providing assistance to the family and community.”

In McDonald’s view, the tribe clearly had a responsibility to step in and protect the Anderson children, even though they are not enrolled members of the tribe. She believed Anderson’s blood quantum was below the threshold to qualify for membership.

“Our agencies have to assist,” she said. “It’s in our code. It shouldn’t have been an issue.”

Yankton denied that children are at greater risk on the reservation than in any other place facing similar social and economic challenges.

“The social fabric of this nation has been stretched so thin,” he said, by years of poverty, high unemployment, poor housing and disruption caused by the struggle to restrain the rising Devils Lake. “As a community we’ve got to come together.”

Readers can reach Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald