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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 17 2012

Official: Spirit Lake children's safety not improved

GRAND FORKS – A federal human services administrator who called on state and federal officials to declare a state of emergency for children at the Spirit Lake Nation has submitted another scathing indictment of child protection services there, alleging that little has been done to improve the situation.

Thomas Sullivan, Denver region administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, wrote that “the only real progress” he has seen since filing his first “mandated report” on June 14 came with charges brought against a man in connection with the deaths of two Spirit Lake children last year in their father’s home in St. Michael.

“Based on reports I have received, everything else appears to remain as it was or has become even worse for the children of Spirit Lake,” he wrote.

In the letter, dated Tuesday, Sullivan accused tribal leaders of threatening retaliation against tribal employees or members of their families if they speak out. He also cited allegations by a former tribal social services director that Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton overruled his objections to certain child placements and “told him to shred (social services) documents,” though he conceded that claim “could be characterized as self-serving” and he could not vouch for its authenticity.

Sullivan urged responsible state and federal officials not to ignore the new reports, or “we will deserve the same condemnation society so correctly applied to those leaders at Penn State and in the Catholic Church who, knowing of the abuse being inflicted on children by their colleagues, did nothing.”

Officials react

He sent the letter to Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota; Tara Muhlhauser, director of children and family services in the state Department of Human Services, and Sue Settles, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ division of human services in Washington, D.C.

Muhlhauser confirmed Friday that she had received the letter and her office would respond early next week.

She said she will refer specific abuse cases cited by Sullivan to tribal social services, “requesting that they address” the issues he raised, but “there is limited information in what Mr. Sullivan sent, so our ability to follow up is difficult without further details.” That would include the names and locations of children and caregivers involved “so people know where to go to assure that the child is safe.”

Sullivan “commended” Purdon for the investigation and arrest in the deaths of 9-year-old Destiny Jane Shaw and her 6-year-old brother, Travis Lee DuBois Jr. The brutal killings traumatized many at Spirit Lake and fanned concern about child protection generally on the reservation. Valentino “Tino” James Bagola, 19, was arrested by FBI agents in Grand Forks on or about July 21 and has been charged in U.S. District Court with four counts of murder,

But Sullivan also cited the death last month of a 2-month-old infant under circumstances that raised concerns, including among members of the infant’s extended family, and he asked whether that case was being reviewed.

The infant’s death “remains under investigation by the FBI and BIA,” Purdon said Friday in a statement emailed to Forum Communications. “These investigations can take time, but I can assure the Spirit Lake community that the U.S. attorney’s office is committed to seeing this investigation through.”

Settles and a BIA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Tribe’s response

Yankton was away from his office and not available to comment, an assistant said, but the tribe released a brief statement late Friday.

“At this point, Thomas Sullivan has not submitted any statement to the tribe,” a Spirit Lake spokeswoman said. “We are aware of a document circulating on the Internet and labeled as a draft, but we have not verified or had an opportunity to verify it and its authenticity.

“The tribal social services department and the Spirit Lake Tribe will investigate and take appropriate action on any official report it receives.”

In a lengthy written statement last week responding to questions and allegations concerning the tribe’s child protection system, the tribe challenged the motives of Sullivan and other whistleblowers and faulted earlier media reports as inaccurate and misleading. The statement offered no specifics, however, citing confidentiality and other legal concerns.

The lengthy statement, published on the Devils Lake Journal’s opinion page Aug. 7, declared that most of the problems cited with child protection programs developed before the current tribal government took office in May 2011. It said the new administration has “worked in close consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs” since then to implement reforms.

According to last week’s statement, the tribe has hired a new social services director and a child protection services supervisor, improved tribal court procedures to better protect children, and formed a “social services coordinating committee” of tribal and local school officials. The tribe also has completed an improvement program required by the state to restore payments to foster care providers.


In his initial “mandated report” submitted to state and federal officials on June 14, Sullivan urged sweeping steps to correct “inaction and excuses” on the part of individuals and agencies charged with protecting the children of Spirit Lake.

In a detailed and bluntly worded report, he singled out tribal officials – including Chairman Yankton – for failing to adequately address a “daunting problem,” and he advised superiors to declare a state of emergency at the reservation, with suspension of all state and federal funding to the tribe until programs there were put on a more professional footing.

Sullivan’s report followed a similarly harsh “letter of grave concern” written in April by Michael Tilus, then a clinical psychologist for the Indian Health Service at Spirit Lake, who cited “dozens of cases” of tribal social services failing to investigate child abuse and neglect reports over five years.

In late July, Tilus was reprimanded by the IHS for writing the letter and reassigned to agency headquarters in Aberdeen, S.D. After protests and inquiries, including questions from North Dakota’s U.S. senators, the reprimand was lifted and Tilus was offered an assignment in Montana.

In his latest letter, Sullivan recounted reports he has received from tribal members concerning the handling of recent cases involving at-risk children, including a situation where nine children are allegedly living in a home with three registered sex offenders.

“What is the purpose of child endangerment laws if this is allowed and if it is not prosecuted?” he asked.

He also cited allegations about the removal of photos and descriptions of registered sex offenders from tribal bulletin boards and what he described as political interference in some child abuse investigations.

Sullivan said that “one reliable source of information” has told him, “Unless someone can guarantee that nobody will fire them, that nobody will take their kids away and that nobody will burn their house down, they will not come forward to speak with you.”

But despite such alleged threats, Sullivan wrote, “the courageous people of Spirit Lake continue to speak up, telling their stories about the abuses they have experienced, the corruption they have seen and the future they desire.”

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald