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Patrick Springer and Chuck Haga, Published July 27 2012

SPECIAL REPORT: Protecting Spirit Lake's children, Letter of ‘grave concern’ rebuffed

FARGO – A clinical psychologist who wrote a letter expressing “grave concern” about endangered children on the Spirit Lake reservation has been reprimanded and reassigned.

Michael Tilus, who served as behavioral health director of the Indian Health Service clinic in Fort Totten, wrote a letter dated April 3 bluntly criticizing the Spirit Lake Tribe for what he said were serious failures in protecting children from abuse or neglect.

An aide for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Tilus has informed his office that he received a letter of reprimand from the IHS for his letter, and said, as of last week, he was reassigned to the agency’s regional headquarters in Aberdeen, S.D.

Tilus did not return an email from Forum Communications seeking comment.

A former colleague said Tilus said he was a conscientious mental health professional who acted properly by reporting child abuse and neglect.

“My question is, is this retaliation for being a whistle blower?” said Joanne Streifel, a clinical social worker who worked with Tilus at the IHS clinic in Fort Totten. “Are they trying to blackball him at IHS?”

She added: “He is acting in good faith. He is mandated to report. He’s not going outside his professional responsibilities here. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”

Tilus served as Streifel’s supervisor for several years after he joined the IHS clinic in Fort Totten around 2007, Streifel said.

“He has been the best supervisor I have had in all my 40 years of social work experience,” she added, “and I can say that without reservation.”

A spokeswoman for the IHS declined to discuss the Tilus reprimand and reassignment.

“Consistent with policy, the Aberdeen Area Indian Health Service does not comment on personnel issues relating to current or former employees,” said Courtney Mallon, acting public affairs liaison for the IHS.

Tilus was criticized by his superiors for going outside “proper channels” by leveling his criticisms against the tribe in a letter sent to numerous state and federal officials and made public by news reports, said Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff.

“It talks about going outside the direct chain of command,” Bernstein said of Tilus’ letter of reprimand.

Hoeven’s office has been in touch with the IHS to express the senator’s concerns and asking for assurances that the reprimand and reassignment were not in retaliation for his “whistle-blowing,” he said.

The IHS gave assurances that another mental health professional had stepped in to fill Tilus’ caseload at the Fort Totten clinic, Bernstein said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., also is concerned about Tilus’ letter of reprimand and reassignment.

“I am aware of the concerns that have been raised regarding Dr. Tilus,” Conrad said in a statement to Forum Communications. “I will continue to monitor the situation as all facts become available.

“But through all this, we cannot lose sight of the most important issue here – the wellbeing of the children at Spirit Lake and reservations throughout Indian Country,” Conrad added. “Preventable tragedies have occurred that must never be permitted to happen again.”

Both Hoeven and Conrad have pressed officials of the IHS and Bureau of Indian Affairs to address gaps in child protection services identified by Tilus and later by Thomas Sullivan, a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Human Services.

In his letter, Tilus described the plight of endangered children on the Spirit Lake reservation as a growing public health hazard and said social services officials for the tribe were responsible for numerous legal and regulatory violations.

In a letter dated July 18, Conrad wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose agency includes the BIA, to urge corrective action for the “epidemic” problems at Spirit Lake described by Tilus.

“Specifically, I request that you take immediate action to supplement existing resources to address the program’s serious deficiencies, including, but not limited to, detailing all available social workers within the BIA system to the Spirit Lake Nation.”

Conrad also urged a “thorough investigation into the circumstances that resulted in the situation deteriorating to such an alarming level under the oversight of the BIA.”

As of Friday, Conrad’s office had not received a written response to the letter.

Similarly, Hoeven wrote Michael S. Black, director of the BIA, a letter on July 11 to urge actions to correct “what is by several credible reports a very serious problem.”

Hoeven said Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services must be held accountable and must make “immediate improvements.” To accomplish that, the BIA must ensure that resources are being used properly.

Hoeven asked for any audits of programs administered by the tribe under agreements with the BIA, as well as any corrective action reports, program reviews or financial reviews.

“If these reports have not been completed, the BIA should undertake such reports immediately,” Hoeven wrote in his letter to Black.

As of Friday, Hoeven’s office had not received a written response to his letter.

A BIA spokeswoman did not address specific questions by Forum Communications reporters asking about its steps to address the problems at Spirit Lake.

“BIA Regional and Headquarters staff continue to provide support to the Spirit Lake Tribe to increase the capacity to address the circumstances with direct assistance on the ground and engaging partners on the Tribal, State and Federal level to mobilize resources,” BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said in a statement.

James Yankton, chairman of Spirit Lake Tribe, could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday, but has said the tribe is working with state and federal officials to address deficiencies.

Earlier this year, Tilus was recognized with the Caraveo National Service Award for his “exemplary dedication to serving the underserved in frontier America, including within Indian country.”

A commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, Tilus is a decorated U.S. Army veteran in the Chaplain Corp, according to a summary of his service connected to the award bestowed by a division of the American Psychological Association.


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


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