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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 23 2012

State official says Spirit Lake has ignored offers of help

GRAND FORKS – An official in the North Dakota Department of Social Services told a federal whistle-blower that concerns he reported about children at risk on the Spirit Lake reservation should go to the tribe’s social services office.

Tara Muhlhauser, director of the Children and Family Services Division, also advised Tom Sullivan her office “has repeatedly offered to provide technical assistance … to help the tribe better serve children,” but the tribe “has not taken advantage of our offer.”

Sullivan, Denver region administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, has submitted three “mandated reports” to state and federal authorities outlining problems in child protection at Spirit Lake and calling for declaration of a “state of emergency” there.

In his latest report, submitted Aug. 14 to Muhlhauser, U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and Sue Settles, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ division of human services in Washington, D.C., Sullivan wrote that little had been done to improve the situation since he first raised an alarm in June.

Based on reports from tribal members, he accused tribal leaders of threatening retaliation against employees if they speak out. He also cited allegations by a former tribal social services director that Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton overruled him on child placement decisions and ordered the shredding of documents.

Yankton was not available for comment last week, and a spokeswoman said Thursday that he is out of the office this week.

In last week’s report, Sullivan cited cases involving at-risk children, including a home where nine children allegedly live with three registered sex offenders.

He urged officials not to delay action on 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.”

In her immediate response to Sullivan’s report, Muhlhauser said last week that she would need additional details to follow up on specific situations, including names of children and caregivers “so people know where to go to assure that the child is safe.”

In her letter to Sullivan on Wednesday, she does not ask for that information but notes that his letter will be sent to tribal social services.


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald