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By Patrick Springer and Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published July 14 2012

Despite losing her job, ex-Spirit Lake social worker driven to push for change

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Betty Jo Krenz can’t forget the desperate faces and voices she came to know while working with Head Start and foster-care children at Spirit Lake Nation.

They were first her job. They became her cause.

Krenz is one of a small but vocal group of people who have been reporting alleged gaps in the child protection and welfare programs on this Dakota Sioux reservation in northeastern North Dakota.

What motivates her to keep prodding for corrective action – even after her whistle-blowing, she says, got her fired almost a year ago?

“When you see 6-year-old girls telling you they were raped,” she said by way of explanation. “When you have a teenaged girl tell you she had to get high before she went to a party because she knew she was going to be gang-raped. When you see dead children – you can’t quit, you can’t stop. It’s not a bad movie. It’s life.”

Krenz, 41, was the child case worker on call on May 21, 2011, the day two young children were found brutally slain in their home in St. Michael, a small community on the reservation – murders that remain unsolved.

Behavioral problems among children, including acting out in school or scrapes with juvenile authorities, often had underlying abuse and neglect problems at their root, Krenz learned.

Case in point: a girl with pleading eyes who wore the blaze orange outfit issued by juvenile detention authorities.

“You can’t forget a 12-year-old girl wearing an orange jumpsuit looking at you saying, ‘Can you please get me a home?’ ”

In her 1½ years working for the tribe, Krenz became concerned about what she regarded as irregularities in the way the tribe’s social services programs were run. On June 8, 2011, she took those concerns to the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs, which provides major funding for tribal programs, with information about “a few troublesome cases” she thought involved a misuse of funds.

Her supervisor, Kevin Duphinais, who then was the tribe’s director of social services, confronted her about her actions. At a tribal general assembly, she said, he described her as a “thorn in the side,” and accused her of meddling in the tribe’s affairs.

“I was told to mind my own business,” Krenz says. Less than a week later, on June 14, the tribe informed her in writing that “my services were no longer required.”

But Krenz, who farms near Jamestown with her husband, was just starting to speak out.

This January, around the time Duphinais left his job, she took a report from the BIA citing numerous deficiencies involving a lack of documentation for the tribe’s social services programs for fiscal year 2010 to North Dakota human services officials.

They conducted their own review and suspended funding for 36 children in foster care or awaiting adoption – funds that still haven’t been restored, despite the tribe’s contention that it has regained compliance.

Meanwhile, the criminal investigation into the double child murders continues. So does an inquiry into last week’s death of a

2-month-old whose mother is suspected by some of her relatives of drug abuse and child neglect.

Tribal officials say they are cooperating with state and federal officials to correct deficiencies in their social services and child protection programs, amid calls by some federal officials that wholesale changes are required and funding should be withheld until the problems are solved.

Krenz has her doubts that the path ahead leads to a brighter future through the cooperative efforts ballyhooed by state and tribal officials alike.

“I haven’t seen one bit of evidence that that’s happening, and another child is dead,” she said, referring to the infant who died last week after repeated efforts by relatives to get help from child protection officials on and off the reservation.

“How many children have to die,” she asked, “while people decide whose problem it is?”

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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