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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 24 2012

Feds to send ‘strike team’ to Spirit Lake, including BIA head

GRAND FORKS – The U.S. Department of the Interior will dispatch a “strike team” of senior officials to the Spirit Lake Nation Monday, including the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the department.

Donald Laverdure, acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said the decision to deploy senior officials was made “in light of the continuing need to improve child safety and protection on the Spirit Lake Reservation” and at the urging of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

On Thursday, Conrad had called Spirit Lake a “rudderless ship” where children suffer because of a lack of leadership. He said tribal leaders have failed to return calls from his office, and a member of his staff who sought to investigate child protection issues there earlier this week was “visibly upset” by what she saw and heard.

In another development Friday, an aide to Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton contacted Conrad’s office to arrange a telephone conversation between Yankton and the senator, also on Monday.

Feds take charge?

According to information provided by Laura Davis, chief of staff for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the “strike team” intends to review with tribal leaders Spirit Lake’s contract with the BIA for operating its social services department.

The team is to determine whether sufficient progress has been made on a “corrective action plan” in place since April, or whether the contract should be revoked, with responsibility for managing social services reverting to the federal government.

The arrangement, called a 638 contract, grew out of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act adopted by Congress in the 1970s. Changes adopted in the 1990s allow Indian tribes and tribal organizations to manage federal programs that impact their members, resources and governments. Spirit Lake has administered its social services program under such a contract since 2001.

The BIA “has been working closely with the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe since August 2011 to help it improve and strengthen its child safety and program compliance while respecting the tribe’s inherent right of self-government,” according to a statement released late Friday by Laverdure.

In addition to BIA Director Mike Black, the delegation will include Darren Cruzan, director of BIA law enforcement, and two Washington-based officials who oversee tribal social services issues.

The tribe’s child protection service has been under fire in recent months, as whistleblowers and other critics say it has repeatedly mishandled reports of abuse and neglect.

For instance:

  • In one case of an infant girl who died in July, relatives told Forum Communications reporters their complaints of her being neglected were not heeded.

  • A senior clinical psychologist who worked on the reservation said in April there are “dozens of cases” over the last five years in which children were illegally removed from homes and recounted 10 cases of abuse and neglect allegations he had filed with the tribe in one three-week period that were apparently not investigated.

  • A federal human services administrator, in a scathing letter earlier this month to state and federal officials, condemned Spirit Lake leaders for retaliating against those who speak out about concerns and relayed a report that nine children were allegedly living in a home with three registered sex offenders.

    BIA plotting a course

    Earlier Friday, in response to Conrad’s call for more action, the Interior Department sent additional trained personnel to the reservation to immediately bolster the tribe’s child protection system.

    “They have two people who have arrived, social workers, and two law enforcement people en route today,” Conrad said after conferring by phone with the Cabinet department.

    In his statement Friday, Laverdure detailed steps the BIA has taken since an August 2011 review of the social services program at Spirit Lake, which “found serious deficiencies in contract performance, including failing to follow regulations, a lack of documentation for critical child safety activities, and improper expenditures.”

    The corrective action plan was developed in November, “and the tribe has been working on addressing these deficiencies” with the BIA, the North Dakota Department of Human Services and the Indian Health Service, Laverdure said. A more detailed plan was issued in April, and the BIA has provided financial assistance as well as training and technical assistance.

    The BIA and Indian Health Service are developing a tracking and coding system for reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, “and to ensure that children under the tribal social services program can access the full range of IHS services.”

    In his statement, Laverdure said the tribe’s social services program “has made progress in the areas where it was deficient,” and the BIA “will continue to provide technical assistance, staffing and training to the program for the foreseeable future and as resources allow.”

    He said future steps will include a follow-up program review in September, working with the IHS on training for mandatory reporters of child abuse, establishing procedures for federal background checks for each foster care placement, and sending child protection workers in tribal social services to the University of North Dakota for child welfare certification training.

    ‘People who can get things done right away’

    Conrad said Thursday his office had tried to monitor what was happening at Spirit Lake as the allegations about the abuse of children and the failure of tribal social services to cope with the problems have become public.

    “We thought there were positive developments,” he said. “I no longer feel this way. I want to see people put in there who are responsible for protecting these children.”

    On Friday, Conrad said he had spoken about Spirit Lake with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson and others, as well as high-ranking Interior officials.

    “We’ve had a great deal of outreach in the past 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

    “I said (to officials at Interior) I don’t want there to be any delay,” he said. “I want to talk to people who can get things done right away, and I appreciate the fact they responded right away.”