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Patrick Springer, Published August 28 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's children: Federal official reaffirms criticism

FARGO – A federal official has renewed his criticisms that state human services officials have not acted aggressively enough to protect endangered children from the Spirit Lake reservation.

Thomas Sullivan, a regional administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, has written state and federal officials four times to relay reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, and to prod for more action.

The series of reports, which started June 14, are among the allegations that have resulted in added assistance to Spirit Lake Tribe from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including a visit Monday from the director and other high-level officials.

In his latest call for action, sent Friday, Sullivan’s primary focus was what he regards as an inadequate response from officials of the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

The state’s role is to provide money to support about 36 foster children from the reservation. Early this year, after learning of program deficiencies found in a BIA review, the state began withholding its support until the problems were corrected.

The tribe complied, including documented home visits of the children, and funding recently was restored for the foster care families.

Although initially convinced state officials would act, “This quickly turned to discouragement as nothing happened, there was no intervention to protect the children from the abuse they reported,” Sullivan wrote to Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

“There was some intervention to protect the state’s money from being spent on the reservation but nothing to protect the children of Spirit Lake,” Sullivan wrote.

Heather Steffl, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said officials did act. “We do take child abuse and neglect situations seriously,” she said Tuesday.

When it learned of the program deficiencies in January, it suspended funding and required a corrective action plan, she said.

The department took immediate action in the area it has jurisdiction, she said, noting that BIA funds most foster children from Spirit Lake.

The state continues to monitor compliance, Steffl said.

In response to Sullivan’s latest report, Purdon said his office concluded Sullivan had not provided evidence of a crime under its jurisdiction.

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

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