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Patrick Springer, Published August 27 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's Children: Hoeven says ‘hard timelines’ set on possible federal takeover

FARGO – Sen. John Hoeven, declaring “hard timelines are needed,” says officials have set Sept. 10 as the date to decide whether the Spirit Lake Tribe can continue running its social services programs or federal officials should.

Hoeven’s comment Monday came as a high-level team of officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs was visiting with Spirit Lake Tribe officials in Fort Totten.

“This has got to get fixed, and you’ve got to have some hard timelines for getting it fixed,” Hoeven said. That was the message he said he has delivered to Michael Black, BIA director, who was at Fort Totten on Monday.

In response, Black told Hoeven he will send a review team back to Spirit Lake on Sept. 10 to evaluate progress in fixing problems, including gaps in protection of endangered children, the senator said.

“Then they’re going to make a determination at that point whether the program has been fixed or whether they’re going to have to federalize,” Hoeven said, meaning the BIA would assume control of social services, now run by the tribe under an agreement with the agency.

In recent weeks and months, Spirit Lake Tribe has been heavily criticized for serious lapses in its safety net to protect endangered children, with allegations from two federal officials and others that tribal officials repeatedly ignored reports of serious child abuse and neglect.

The tribe hired a new social services director, Mark Little Owl, about two weeks ago, and the BIA has had people on the reservation, ongoing in some instances and periodically in others, to work with the tribe to improve its social services, Hoeven said.

“Even if they don’t take over the programs on Sept. 10, we still think they need to have people in there,” Hoeven said. “Either way, the BIA has to have people in there to make sure that this gets fixed.”

Black has told Hoeven that he is working to hire additional social workers to help Spirit Lake Tribe.

“He’s offering to put people with the tribe and he’s trying to hire some social workers to help,” the senator said.

Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he expects to travel to Spirit Lake next week to check on the situation there and efforts to address deficiencies in social services programs.

Also, the BIA must address allegations from Dr. Michael Tilus, a clinical psychologist and former behavioral health director at the Indian Health Service clinic in Fort Totten, and Thomas Sullivan, a regional federal human services official.

In April, Tilus wrote a “letter of grave concern,” about what he said were systemic and ongoing failures to protect endangered children at Spirit Lake, including failure to investigate numerous reports of abuse and neglect.

Sullivan has issued a series of written allegations involving suspected child abuse and neglect, and repeatedly has criticized state and federal officials for failing to deal adequately with problems in protecting endangered children.

“Director Black has assured us that he’s looking into the concerns that Dr. Tilus and Mr. Sullivan have raised,” Hoeven said.

“It’s not done yet,” Hoeven added, referring to efforts to date. “We’re not satisfied at this point. We’re concerned.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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