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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published August 31 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's children: BIA official to return to supervise social workers

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – A top Bureau of Indian Affairs official will return to the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation for two weeks starting Tuesday to supervise BIA social workers detailed to the tribe’s social services department, the Interior Department announced today.

Sue Settles, human services chief in the BIA’s Office of Indian Services in Washington, D.C., was part of a “strike team” sent to the reservation on Monday to consult with tribal officials about deficiencies in the social services program and improvements needed.

The team was sent to Fort Totten at the urging of U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who last week said he wanted to see more evidence that tribal and federal officials were making progress in dealing with what some have called a child protection crisis there.

Donald E. “Del” Laverdure, acting assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, announced Settles’ assignment and other actions on Friday, actions the department hopes will improve child safety and protection on the reservation.

The BIA’s Office of Indian Services has been working with Spirit Lake since August 2011, when “serious deficiencies” were found in social service programs on the reservation, Laverdure said. The tribe has had responsibility for operating the program since 2001, under contract with the BIA, through the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistant Act.

“Protecting the youngest and most vulnerable tribal citizens is a high priority in our efforts to improve public safety in Indian Country,” he said in announcing the new efforts.

The BIA will conduct a program review the week of Sept. 10 to assess the tribe’s progress on the corrective action plan, Laverdure said, with the goal of helping Spirit Lake “safely and successfully operate its social services program.”

He thanked Spirit Lake leaders for cooperating with the federal team.

Starting Tuesday, two supervisory social workers will join Settles to help tribal staff conduct home visits, follow up on child protection referrals and properly document such activities. Those are areas that have been singled out as deficient.

BIA social workers also will help the program’s new director address deficiencies identified in the corrective action plan issued in April, and tribal child protection workers will attend a series of training sessions starting next month at UND to attain child welfare certification.

The BIA issued its initial corrective action plan in November 2011. A more detailed plan was developed in April. Since then, the bureau has provided additional funding, training and technical assistance to the tribe.

Laverdure said additional BIA social workers may be recruited to help with on-site monitoring and other assistance for up to a year, and the BIA will coordinate its assistance with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. The BIA also will work with the Indian Health Service on training for mandatory reporters.

Laverdure said the BIA also intends to work with the tribe and law enforcement agencies to complete federal background checks for each foster care placement at Spirit Lake.

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald