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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 09 2012

Spirit Lake Nation claims progress being made

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – In a lengthy statement published this week in the Devils Lake Journal, the Spirit Lake Tribe decried recent criticism of tribal social service programs involving child protection.

The statement challenged the motives of “whistleblowers” and faulted media reports on the issue as inaccurate and misleading but offered no specific examples, citing confidentiality and other legal concerns.

Forum Communications published a series of articles over the past several weeks concerning the child protection system at Spirit Lake based on documents obtained directly or indirectly from various officials and interviews with tribal members and others with connections to child protection.

Michael Tilus, a clinical psychologist who had served as behavioral health director of the Indian Health Service clinic on the reservation, had written a letter to superiors in April expressing “grave concern” for children there. Subsequent to Tilus’ alarm, Thomas Sullivan, a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Human Services in Denver, urged federal agencies to investigate and correct “gaps” in child protection services at the reservation.

In late July, Tilus was reprimanded and reassigned to the IHS regional headquarters in Aberdeen, S.D. After questions were raised by North Dakota’s two U.S. senators and others, however, the reprimand was rescinded.

Forum Communications reporters sought an extended interview in early July with Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton. He declined, saying the tribe would issue a detailed statement within days responding to allegations that child protection on the reservation was in “crisis.” As of Thursday, Forum Communications had received no statement from the tribe.

Funding shortfalls

In the 2,000-word statement published in Tuesday’s Devils Lake Journal, signed “Spirit Lake Tribe,” the unnamed author said the tribal government “is dedicated to addressing the many social service needs of our citizens,” but the tribe faces “substantial funding and other resource deficiencies” as well as “challenges that are not of the tribe’s making.”

Elected leaders and people generally at Spirit Lake “are well aware of the gravity and difficult nature of these problems, particularly because we live with their consequences every day.”

But “while others point fingers,” the statement continued, “the current tribal government has taken deliberate action to improve how the tribe does its job in administering programs to serve our people, and, above all, protecting our children.”

According to the statement, “an entirely new Tribal Council” elected in May 2011 “learned of the issues” with tribal social services and “has worked in close consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs” to reform those services.

Tribal officials met on July 18 with federal and state officials, including the BIA division chief for human services, “to collectively gather the facts first-hand (and) discuss issues of concern,” and the tribe has hired a new social services director and a child protection services supervisor who are to start work in mid-August.

The tribe has formed a “social services coordinating committee” of tribal and local school officials, completed an improvement program required by the state to restore payments to foster care providers, and improved tribal court procedures to better protect children, according to the statement.

According to the statement, Tilus did not raise his concerns about the Tribal Social Services Department until April, eight months after the new tribal government “began to reform the department,” and questioned his and other critics’ motives.

“Why did he wait so long? Is he attempting to preempt potential criticism of his complicity in the problems of the past now that the tribal leadership is engaged in reform?”

In his letter, however, Tilus said that he went public with his concerns after repeated efforts had failed to get tribal social services officials to investigate serious child abuse and neglect reports.

The statement suggested that “attacks on the tribe and use of the media frenzy for personal spotlight opportunities” may “be more about and fueled by internal politics and personally driven agendas.”

In its statement, the tribe also suggested that Tilus and Sullivan may have tribal records in their possession and that those records should be returned.

Efforts Thursday to contact tribal officials about the statement were unsuccessful.


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald