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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 01 2012

A long six months at Spirit Lake

GRAND FORKS – Correspondence obtained by Forum Communications between the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Spirit Lake Tribe over the past six months shows the federal agency persistently urging the tribe to fix serious problems in its management of Tribal Social Services.

The memos are polite, official and largely dispassionate.

Others soon would use much harsher language.

In early March, federal officials told tribal leaders that “a full corrective action plan” was necessary to upgrade child protection services at the reservation. That came after a BIA review team spent four days on the reservation examining case files and financial records and interviewing social services staff and clients and tribal leaders.

“The BIA felt it necessary to issue an immediate interim advisory to alert the tribe as to the major concerns highlighted in the exit review,” Yvonne LaRocque, a senior BIA official, wrote to Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton.

A month later, Michael Tilus weighed in.

“I … have no confidence in the TSS (Tribal Social Services) leadership or program, BIA superintendent or Spirit Lake Tribal Council to provide safe, responsible, legal, ethical and moral services to the abused and neglected children of the Spirit Lake Tribe,” Tilus wrote on April 3 to state and federal officials.

A clinical psychologist and then director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, Tilus wrote of his “grave concern” that “reckless and random behavior” by social services staff was contributing to a public health disaster.

A month after Tilus’ scathing indictment, Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator of the Administration for Children and Families in Denver, filed the first of five “mandated reports” concerning child abuse and system failure at Spirit Lake.

“The children of the Spirit Lake Reservation are being subjected to actual abuse or the threat of such abuse due to the actions and inactions of adults who have responsibility to protect them from such abuse,” Sullivan wrote in a June 14 report to state and federal officials.

“They have hung signs at the borders of the Spirit Lake Nation, ‘Pedophiles Welcome.’ ”

Deep division

Tilus and Sullivan, supported by a number of Spirit Lake tribal members, raised the issue’s public profile, drawing the attention of regional and national media as well as top officials in the U.S. Department of the Interior and North Dakota’s U.S. senators.

Throughout the roiling controversy, Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton has insisted that his administration is aware of the deficiencies and has worked to improve and reform the tribe’s child protection system since he took office in May 2011.

As he sat down with top federal officials last week to determine how the tribe could continue to run its social services program, he asked his visitors: “When you came onto the reservation, did you see any ‘Predators Welcome’ signs?”

The issue has severely divided Spirit Lake. Some members say child protection is compromised by incompetence, corruption and intimidation, while others defend the tribal government’s efforts and dismiss critics as ill-informed and driven by their own agendas.

The Interior team, led by BIA Director Mike Black, reviewed actions taken so far by the tribe and made site visits to check out allegations raised by critics. Another federal review is scheduled the week of Sept. 10, and federal officials say they will decide soon after whether social service programs at Spirit Lake will continue to be administered by the tribe, as has been the case since 2001, or revert to direct BIA supervision.

Here is a synopsis of major developments in the Spirit Lake child protection saga so far:

• May 2011: Destiny Jane Shaw, 9, and her brother, Travis Lee Dubois Jr., 6, are abused and killed, their bodies found beneath a mattress in a house on the reservation. The crime sparks questions about the quality of child protection at Spirit Lake.

• November 2011: The BIA documents deficiencies in social services programs at Spirit Lake.

• Jan. 17-20, 2012: The state Department of Human Services, which helps fund foster care on the reservation, inspects the tribe’s foster care case files.

• Feb. 22, 2012: The BIA schedules official site visit Feb. 27 to March 2.

• March 1: The state gives the tribe until the end of the month to fix foster care problems. Funding is briefly suspended but later reinstated.

• March 9: The BIA notifies Spirit Lake Tribe of findings from its review, including failure to conduct required background checks on foster care providers, failure to make required monthly home visits and illegally removing foster children from homes and placing them elsewhere without determining whether the new homes were safe.

The BIA advises the tribe to make child safety and legal issues “their absolute highest priority in the short-term.”

• March 30: In a follow-up letter, the BIA underscores “immediate action items … of great concern” identified in the March 9 letter, including questions about “illegal placements” of children, lack of federal background checks and licensing for foster homes, poor tracking of referrals and poor documentation of coordination with law enforcement, schools and others.

The BIA asks for a response by April 6. “Failure to do so will result in immediate action leading up to possible re-assumption (by BIA) of the tribe’s social services program.”

• April 3: Chairman Yankton responds to the BIA findings, detailing changes that had been or would be implemented, including an assurance that Tribal Social Services “will screen all child abuse/neglect reports and determine what action needs to be taken for each individual case.” He wrote that the Tribal Council and social services staff “will ensure that the safety (and) legal issues will be of the highest priority of the tribe.”

• April 3: Tilus sends his letter of “grave concern.”

• April 5: Chairman Yankton responds to questions raised by the BIA on March 30.

• April 23: The BIA sends Spirit Lake a program review and more detailed corrective action plan, listing items requiring immediate action and others to be completed within 30 days. Among the review findings: Calls to Social Services automatically went to voicemail. “Office personnel should be answering the phone. … If urgent child abuse and neglect reports come in, this may impede a reasonably prompt response.”

• April 25: Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., meets with the head of Indian Health Service to express concerns about Spirit Lake.

• May 16: Chairman Yankton responds to the BIA corrective action plan and program review, detailing steps taken or planned by the tribe to comply with federal requirements and recommendations.

• May 19: Hoeven urges the BIA to step up oversight at Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services.

• June 14: Thomas Sullivan sends his first “mandated report,” criticizing Yankton as well as state and federal leaders for allowing poor conditions regarding the safety of children to persist. He repeats a charge raised earlier by Tilus that a suicidal girl was allowed to be shuttled back and forth between homes where convicted sex offenders lived. He says Yankton should be charged with felony child abuse and endangerment.

• July 7: The New York Times carries a report on problems at Spirit Lake.

• July 8: Sullivan files his second “mandated report.”

• July 11: News reports of the death of a 2-month-old girl on the reservation, after family members had urged Tribal Social Services to check on the baby and possibly intervene, fuel concern about child protection at Spirit Lake.

• July 13: Hoeven says he will seek hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on child protection at Spirit Lake and elsewhere in Indian Country.

• July 19: Murder charges are filed in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks against Valentino James Bagola, 19, of St. Michael, N.D., in the 2011 deaths of 9-year-old Shaw and her brother, 6-year-old Dubois.

• July 27: Hoeven’s office reports that Tilus was reprimanded by the Indian Health Service and reassigned. The reprimand was later rescinded and the reassignment altered in Tilus’ favor.

• July 30: The BIA asks Yankton for verification that all social services staff who have contact with children have federal background checks.

• Aug. 6: Spirit Lake responds to critics with a lengthy statement published in a Devils Lake newspaper, challenging their motives and faulting media reports as inaccurate.

• Aug. 14: Sullivan sends his third report, alleging little had been done to improve child protection. He accuses leaders of threatening retaliation against those who speak out.

• Aug. 23: In an interview in Grand Forks, Conrad declares Spirit Lake a “rudderless ship” and says he will ask the Interior Department to intervene.

• Aug. 24: Interior announces it will immediately send a “strike team” led by the BIA director to Spirit Lake.

• Aug. 27: The Interior team meets behind closed doors with tribal officials in Fort Totten, later inspecting social services offices and programs, to see whether sufficient progress has been made or whether responsibility for social services programs should revert to the BIA.

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald