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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 07 2012

Hoeven urges tribal leaders to act quickly

SPIRIT LAKE NATION – Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., huddled here Friday with Spirit Lake tribal leaders and urged them to act fast and openly to resolve deficiencies in the tribe’s social services program, under fire recently for allegedly leaving children at risk.

The alternative to quick and effective upgrading of the reservation’s child protection system is a resumption of Bureau of Indian Affairs responsibility for the program, Hoeven said.

“We have to make sure the children are being taken care of and are safe,” he said at the outset of a 90-minute meeting with tribal leaders, representatives of the BIA and others.

“It has to be an open and transparent process,” Hoeven told them. “It is incumbent on the tribe to get that done, and you have to get it done now,” or state and federal agencies will have to step in.

A BIA review team will return to the reservation next week to assess progress the tribe has made on a corrective action plan developed in November and expanded in April. In a meeting late last month with BIA Director Michael Black, Hoeven said “hard deadlines are needed,” a message he repeated several times in his meeting with Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton and others.

Yankton thanked Hoeven for offering to help find solutions to a difficult situation that has been complicated by inadequate staffing and funding.

“This issue is only part of our larger social dilemma,” Yankton said, referring to a critical shortage of good housing, the financial and emotional strain of a 15-year fight with the rising waters of Devils Lake and other challenges.

“It’s good you’re here,” he told the senator.

Hoeven outlined several key signs of progress he wants to see, touching on issues raised in the earlier BIA reviews and by individual tribe members:

• “Children have to have a (court) hearing before they’re placed in a foster home,” he said.

• Once the determination is made to place a child in a foster home, a background check on the foster family must be done – and done in a timely manner.

• Whether on the reservation or through cooperative agreements with neighboring counties, enough qualified foster homes need to be available to accommodate all placements.

• With regard to all the fixes and improvements the tribe has made or is contemplating, “Is there proper reporting so you know it’s being done?”

Hoeven said the BIA and state social services people “need an ongoing presence here to make sure it’s being done, so people know it’s being done.”

He also told the tribal leaders, who included several Tribal Council members, that there “has to be continuity” in leadership positions, so that “when you get the people you need and the systems in place, people will know it’s continuing.”

Hoeven pressed that point with Mark Little Owl, hired a month ago as director of Tribal Social Services and the tribe’s new point man in dealing with the child protection issue.

“You’re in place, permanent?” Hoeven asked Little Owl. “You feel you have the autonomy you need?”

Little Owl responded that he has signed a four-year contract with the tribe, has hired three new professional social workers, and developed new procedures to guide them and other child welfare professionals.

Hoeven said he continues to press for hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which he and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., are members, to broaden the inquiry into problems of child protection on the nation’s Indian reservations.

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald