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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 31 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's children: Chairman, critic trade barbs over handling of child protection issue

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton and one of his sharpest critics in the long-running furor over the safety of Spirit Lake’s children challenged each other’s credibility and motives in a written exchange this week, with Yankton chiding Thomas Sullivan for reporting “rumor and conjecture” and Sullivan charging the chairman with interfering with his duty as a “mandated reporter” of suspected child abuse.

Yankton also defended efforts by his administration to correct deficiencies in the Tribal Social Services office and wrote that the tribe “strongly objects to Mr. Sullivan’s baseless calls for criminal charges to be filed against tribal leaders and anyone who does not agree with his prescriptions for addressing the problems.”

Sullivan forwarded Yankton’s letter and his response, calling it his fifth mandated report, to superiors at the Administration for Children and Families, where he is a regional administrator in Denver. He also copied the exchange to a Bureau of Indian Affairs official and Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

Yankton’s letter is dated Aug. 23, four days before a “strike team” of high-ranking federal officials arrived on the reservation for closed meetings with tribal leaders on problems within Tribal Social Services and allegations made by Sullivan and others about the tribe failing to protect its children.

However, Sullivan noted that the letter was sent by overnight mail from Grand Forks on Monday afternoon, as those meetings went on.

Yankton and the rest of the Spirit Lake Tribal Council were out of town late this week, attending memorial services for a leader of the Shakopee Mdewakantan Sioux Tribe in southern Minnesota. He did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment, including whether he had shown his letter to the federal officials or consulted with them about it.

In his letter, Yankton faulted Sullivan for directing his earlier reports to the BIA rather than to Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services, which since 2001 has had responsibility for administering the program – though that could change within days if federal officials determine the BIA should resume direct control.

Federal officials plan another visit to Spirit Lake the week of Sept. 10, with a decision coming soon after.

“In these e-mails, Mr. Sullivan lobs insults at the tribe’s management of its social services department, calls for changes in tribal leadership and personnel, and (cites) alleged failure to investigate cases,” the chairman wrote. “Yet Mr. Sullivan has failed to file any report with the appropriate investigatory agency,” the tribe’s social services department.

Much of what Sullivan has reported of Spirit Lake children at risk “is only rumor and conjecture” or “hearsay reported by anyone who calls him, as if everything he is told is true,” Yankton wrote.

Sullivan responded by email on Thursday, challenging Yankton’s allegations of “rumor and conjecture” by noting that the chairman offered no specific examples of error in his reports.

He also wrote that Yankton was wrong in asserting that Sullivan had never been to Spirit Lake.

Sullivan noted that the BIA, in its annual reviews of the tribe’s social services programs, has found a growing number of deficiencies.

“Tribal judges, tribal elders as well as others concerned for the welfare of the children of Spirit Lake have been petitioning the Tribal Council, BIA, … the North Dakota Department of Human Services” and others “to intervene … to protect the children of the Spirit Lake Nation,” he wrote.

In his letter, which was also addressed to George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for ACF in the Department of Health and Human Services, Yankton said he “would be pleased to communicate, as appropriate, on these issues with you,” but asked that they “discuss or correspond with the tribe on these matters before drawing conclusions or discussing them with the press.”

He requested “an investigation into how the Sullivan reports became public and why they were not filed with the tribe for appropriate action.”

Sullivan replied that he has “had no discussions with anyone from the media,” though his office has received several requests for interviews.


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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald