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Patrick Springer, Published September 08 2012

BIA expected to determine soon who’ll run Spirit Lake programs

FARGO – This week could decide the future governance of social services for the Spirit Lake Tribe as a deadline looms about who should run programs recently found to be riddled with deficiencies.

A review team of the Bureau of Indian Affairs will return to the reservation this week, with a decision expected soon about how best to get programs including child welfare and foster care back into compliance.

Will the tribe – whose administration Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., recently compared to a “rudderless ship” – be allowed to keep running the programs with BIA oversight?

Or will the U.S. Department of Interior’s BIA, which provides federal funding for tribal services, conclude that it should step in and assume control?

Either way, the decision will be a pivotal moment for the tribe and those it serves in the area of social services, including endangered children.

Spirit Lake Tribe has been under fire since April, with critics alleging serious gaps in protecting endangered children, including ignored reports of abuse and neglect over a five-year period.

North Dakota’s two U.S. senators, both of whom serve on the Indian Affairs Committee, have used blunt language in calling the situation unacceptable and demanding prompt solutions.

“We’ll be looking to make sure that these things are done and it’s verifiable,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

After a visit with tribal officials last week, Hoeven said progress to date on corrective steps had been “inadequate.”

The tribe has added or filled six positions, including a qualified new director of social services, but now must demonstrate that it is fixing the problems, the senator said.

“I’m still concerned until we know,” Hoeven said, “and that’s what this review team is all about.”

Roger Yankton, chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, said his administration is moving ahead and looks forward to continued technical assistance and funding support from the BIA.

“We’re working aggressively,” he said. “We’re making great strides. We’re gaining ground.”

This week’s site visit by the BIA review team will be the third since early March, with a follow-up in July. Since then, federal officials have been meeting and working with the tribe under a corrective action plan.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, the liaison between state government and the tribes, did not want to offer an opinion about whether Spirit Lake Tribe has improved its management of social services.

“As of right now, it is of my opinion that it is too early to gauge or assess the progress,” he said in a statement. “I believe work is being done collectively, but they have more work to do.”

A better answer, he added, should come in “the coming weeks.”

In earlier reviews, BIA teams have cited a long list of program deficiencies, including illegal foster care placements, foster homes lacking criminal background checks, and missing documentation.

The corrective action plan lists numerous problems that must be fixed, with varying deadlines. It last was extended through Aug. 31, and will be re-evaluated in this week’s review.

Several outcomes are possible from the review, said Yvonne LaRocque, the self-determination officer for the BIA’s Great Plains Region, which includes North Dakota.

“It’s just based on what we find out there” at this week’s review, she said.

Short of taking control, the BIA could extend the corrective action plan, with continuing evaluations of its progress in addressing deficiencies according to deadlines.

A BIA takeover of programs it has contracted with a tribe to administer is rare, but happens, LaRocque said.

“It happens once or twice a year, if not more often,” around the country, she said.

In her eight years of working with the 16 tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, LaRocque cannot recall an instance when the BIA assumed control of a program.

“Most programs are in tip-top shape, with the right management,” she said.

“I’d say the one at Spirit Lake is unusual,” LaRocque said of the ongoing efforts to correct deficiencies. “I think it was probably the leadership,” she added, referring to the tribal council and former social services director, among others.

On the other hand, she credited the tribe with hiring a new social services director with good credentials, Mark Little Owl, as well as a new child protective services case worker.

The program collaborations between the BIA and tribes, spelled out in contracts, stem from the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. Congress decided tribes should be allowed the option of running a wide array of programs, including social services, health and education.

The act reflected a shift in federal policy in dealing with American Indian tribes, following earlier eras where the aim was termination of responsibilities stemming from treaties to assimilation into society.

“The Self Determination Act is in line with U.S. policy providing self-governance of Indian tribes,” said Derrick Beetso, a staff attorney for the National Congress of American Indians, a policy advocacy organization.

Tribes that contract to run programs funded by the BIA submit to quarterly reviews and must file annual reports documenting how many people are served and accounting for how money is spent.

To ensure safety, for instance, the tribe must document that it complies with a 72-hour deadline for court orders to place children in foster care to licensed foster homes.

Tribal social workers also must document monthly home visits for foster children, and be able to track follow-up and referrals.

Also, the tribe was admonished that it must not use juvenile detention or other correctional facilities as residential care placements for children, as sometimes happened, according to BIA reviews.

The Spirit Lake Tribe is working to prevent those problems from recurring, Yankton said.

“The children’s safety, the public safety, is a priority,” he said.

The tribe is working hard to persuade the BIA that it can handle its social services, with BIA help, rather than turning over control to federal authorities, Yankton said.

“We feel we have the capability to do it,” he said.

Hoeven, and others, will be looking for proof.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522