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Chuck Haga and Patrick Springer, Forum Communications, Published July 13 2012

SPECIAL REPORT: Protecting Spirit Lake’s kids

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — Former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, who was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee until his retirement in 2010, remembers a girl named Tamara, whose sad story drew him to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation many years ago.

“I went down and met with her grandfather, and I met with her,” he said. “She was 3 years old, and she had been put in a foster home by someone in social services who was handling 125 to 150 cases,” when 40 cases would be a heavy load.

“The social worker never went to the home to check it out,” he said. “There was a drunken party, and Tamara’s nose was broken, her arm was broken, and her hair was pulled out by the roots.”

While the spotlight today is on Spirit Lake, where the child protection system is under fire, the sexual and physical abuse of children on reservations is not new. It is not unique to Indian reservations, and it is not unique to Spirit Lake. But there is broad agreement it is one of the most vexing problems facing Indian country, along with the often related crisis of Indian teen suicide.

Cultural barriers

In 2006, an assistant director of the FBI told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that in the five previous years the FBI initiated 1,658 investigations nationally and made 537 arrests in the sexual abuse of Indian children.

“The FBI faces many unique obstacles in investigating crimes against children in Indian country,” he testified, including remoteness, the absence of readily accessible technical experts, “reluctant witnesses due to close family structures in most tribal communities, and cultural sensitivities in tribal relations.”

Also in 2006, nearly a quarter of all criminal cases adjudicated in federal courts in South Dakota involved sexual abuse, according to a study by Northern State University in Aberdeen. The majority of victims were Indian children living on reservations.

But despite reams of studies, laws, speeches and recommendations, it remains a disturbingly pervasive problem. Michael Tilus, director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, has described child abuse as a societal epidemic and public health disaster in Indian country. His April “letter of grave concern” to state and federal officials, alleging serious failures in child protection at Spirit Lake, has rocked the reservation.

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,” Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton said, disputing whether the system is in crisis.

But many of the failings cited in Tilus’ letter and in recent federal reviews of Spirit Lake’s social services have been spotlighted for years.

Jurisdiction issue

In 1990, Congress adopted the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act, seeking better reporting procedures, central registries of offenders, mandatory character investigations for social service providers and expanded Indian child abuse treatment and prevention programs.

In a 2004 Tribal Law Journal article titled “What Indian tribes can do to combat child sexual abuse,” co-author Larry Echo Hawk – then a law professor, recently a high-ranking official in the Bureau of Indian Affairs – urged “a multidisciplinary and multi-jurisdictional approach to child sexual abuse prevention and prosecution.”

Spirit Lake leaders say that’s what they’re working toward. But people who have challenged the child protection system there have cited confusion over jurisdiction as a continuing problem.

A Pawnee Indian, Echo Hawk concluded: “The future of the tribe depends on the prevention and aggressive prosecution of child sexual abuse. In this era of self-determination, tribes must take the initiative.”

Kathryn Turman of the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, had raised similar concerns in a 1999 memorandum, noting that “the investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse cases (on reservations) often present a jurisdictional maze … thus producing unnecessary victim trauma.”

‘How can you lose a girl for 90 days?’

Funding constraints and overworked staffers also cut into the system’s effectiveness.

At a Senate field hearing Dorgan chaired in Bismarck about seven years ago, a woman who worked in social services at Spirit Lake “broke down and began sobbing during her testimony,” he said.

“She talked about stacks of complaints in her office that hadn’t even been investigated. Just to take a kid to the mental health center in Devils Lake, she had to go beg to borrow a car.

“About six weeks later, she resigned.”

Another story involved a girl at Spirit Lake who committed suicide.

“She had been lying at home, usually in a fetal position, for 90 days,” Dorgan said. Drug abuse was a problem in the home. The girl’s father had committed suicide by playing Russian roulette. But nobody from social services had checked on the girl.

“I asked, ‘How can you lose a girl for 90 days?’

“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.”

But inadequate funding isn’t the entire problem.

“There is incompetence in every direction of the compass,” he said. “Money is a part of it, but you need tribal officials, school administrators and parents. You need active boys and girls clubs.

“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.”

As he left the Senate, Dorgan created the Center for Native American Youth, part of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., dedicated to improving the health, safety and overall well-being of American Indian youth. In March, he and members of the center’s staff went to Spirit Lake to speak with young people during a student rally at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten.

“We have to reach out more,” he said. “We have to try to reach the tribes, the parents – and especially these kids.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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


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