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Published August 04 2012

Forum editorial: Tell truth and get punished

There is something very wrong with a bureaucracy that reprimands and reassigns a professional children’s advocate for telling the truth. That happened to clinical psychologist Michael Tilus, who was behavioral health director of the Indian Health Service at Fort Totten, N.D. His offense? In an April 3 letter, he criticized the Spirit Lake Tribe for what he viewed as failure to protect children from abuse or neglect.

Ah, but then, in a turnaround precipitated by effective application of political pressure, IHS apparently got a spanking from its overseers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and reversed course. In a missive late last week, HHS said it had vacated the Tilus reprimand “after reviewing the personnel actions in this case.”

That’s bureaucratic speak for feeling the heat, which, by the way, was turned up by the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

A little history:

Tilus was right about the condition of children on the northeast North Dakota reservation. He acted honorably and professionally by speaking out. Instead of earning praise from IHS, he was reprimanded and reassigned to the regional headquarters in Aberdeen, S.D.

What makes the now-vacated retaliation all the more outrageous is that Tilus had earned nothing but high marks for his work at

Fort Totten from co-workers and colleagues. Just a few months ago, he received a coveted service award from the American Psychological Association for “exemplary dedication to serving the underserved in … Indian country.”

In addition to simply acting in good faith, Tilus is by law a mandated reporter of suspected abuse and neglect. His April 3 letter was in keeping with his professional standards and legal responsibilities.

All of that was not good enough for the see-no-evil crowd at IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neither agency would speak about the Tilus matter, opting to hide behind a policy that says agencies do not “comment on personnel issues relating to current or former employees.” How convenient. It seems, however, that higher-ups in HHS understood the public relations nightmare IHS’ action could cause. In announcing the reversal HHS said, “We remain committed to working with the tribe, state and federal officials to improve efforts to combat child abuse” at Spirit Lake.

We’ll see. The fact that IHS personnel in Indian country were so clumsy and clueless in responding to Tilus’ letter does not inspire confidence.

The most troubling element in all this: A system that has failed again and again to protect children in harm’s way tried to punish a dedicated advocate who did the right thing. The way-too-comfortable bureaucrats who hid behind “policy and proper channels,” still have some explaining to do.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.