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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 27 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's Children: Tribal chair says ‘We’re the whistle-blowers’

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Spirit Lake officials met here Monday with a “strike team” of U.S. Interior Department officials, hoping to reassure the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and others that they are making progress on improving the tribe’s embattled social services department.

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton said that he and other tribal leaders “are reassuring them that we’re working on this.”

“We’ve been working it for more than a year,” he said, repeating earlier assertions that many of the deficiencies in child protection and other tribal programs predate his administration.

Yankton again challenged the accuracy of statements made by a former Indian Health Service psychologist, a federal “whistle-blower” and others who have cited cases of abuse and neglect in claiming the tribe’s child protection system is in crisis.

“We’re the whistle-blowers,” Yankton said, referring to reports the tribe has been making to the BIA. “We’re the ones who started this,” the reformation of the child protection system.

Mike Black, BIA director, said during a break after four hours with tribal officials that the meeting “has gone really well, with open discussions on things we need to move on.”

He said he didn’t know if “crisis” was the right word, “but there are issues here that need to be resolved and corrected.”

The federal team, which included high-ranking officials from the Office of Indian Services and the Office of Justice Services within the Interior, was dispatched to Spirit Lake at the urging late last week of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Conrad on Thursday described Spirit Lake as a “rudderless ship” and said he would ask for the high-level federal intervention.

After Conrad’s remarks were reported Friday, Yankton’s office arranged for the chairman to talk to Conrad on Monday. However, Yankton said he was told the senator had a family matter and the conversation would be rescheduled.

Black said he would meet throughout the day with members of tribal program staff “to get a full picture of what’s going on here.”

Yankton said federal officials were there so “that those allegations that have been reported, if they’re founded, will be corrected. They’re going to go out and verify, then move on to correct those things that need to be corrected through due process.”

Yankton said the tribal government “has always understood that there were deficiencies” in tribal social services programs, including those charged with the protection of Spirit Lake’s children.

Referring to a comment from one of the critics, Yankton said he told the federal officials “we didn’t put up any sign at the reservation border saying, ‘Welcome pedophiles.’ I asked them if they saw it, and they said no, they only saw welcome signs.”

Allegations have been made by a former IHS psychologist and others about the physical and sexual abuse of children, jurisdictional confusion that has hampered response and other problems at Spirit Lake.

In August 2011, the BIA conducted an annual review of Spirit Lake’s social services program and found what it called “serious deficiencies,” including failure to follow regulations, a lack of documentation and improper expenditures. The BIA issued a corrective action plan and the tribe has been working on that and a more detailed plan issued in April.

Also participating in the meetings was Mark Little Owl, hired two weeks ago to direct Spirit Lake’s Social Services Department.

“This has been a long-going crisis, many, many years, and I’m here to help as best as I can,” he said.

He said he looks forward to working with the state, federal and county governments to resolve jurisdictional issues.

“The priority for all of us is the children,” he said.

Little Owl, who formerly worked as director of behavioral health at a health center just opened by the Three Affiliated Tribes in New Town, N.D., said he hopes to bolster social services staffing at Spirit Lake. He said he has seven or eight social workers, but would like twice that many for more home visits and other hands-on work.

He said the BIA has provided some social workers who have helped with training and home visitation over the past couple of weeks.

Like Yankton, Little Owl faulted what he said were “false allegations” and negative media reports for making it more difficult for the tribe to address its acknowledged deficiencies. He said it has made it more difficult to recruit professionals the tribe needs.

Little Owl is a graduate of the University of North Dakota who earned a master’s degree in social work in 2009.

“When we recruited him, we laid it all on the table,” Yankton said with regard to the challenges and problems the tribe faces.

In addition to providing some BIA social workers to help with the staffing shortage at Spirit Lake, Interior also is working with the IHS to develop a tracking and coding system for reports of suspected child abuse and neglect and helping with training for people mandated by law to make abuse reports.

Federal officials plan a follow-up program review in mid-September.

The meeting in BIA offices at tribal headquarters here was closed, but Spirit Lake tribal member Oralia Diaz managed to step in for a minute to tell the federal visitors that the tribal government “has community support,” despite the attention and questions it has faced in recent months.

“Every one of these cases you’re talking about is a small human being,” she said, “and they’re trying to do everything possible to address the problems and serve our children.”

Cheryl Good Iron, a Spirit Lake member who has been sharply critical of the tribal government over the child protection issue, led a delegation of five dissidents who sought a meeting with the federal officials to underscore their belief that a wholesale change in tribal leadership is warranted.

“We need a new tribal council, a new chairman, and a new superintendent,” she said, the last referring to the local BIA director. “There’s a lot of people here who feel that way,” she said, but she said they are fearful of speaking up.

Paulette Driver, who said she is challenging her firing by the local BIA director in December 2011, complained that Spirit Lake has not held a general assembly of tribal members in nine months.

“That’s a violation of our constitution, which requires a general assembly every month,” she said.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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