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Patrick Springer and Chuck Haga, Published September 14 2012

BIA to take control of Spirit Lake social services programs

FARGO – The Bureau of Indian Affairs will assume control of social services programs for the Spirit Lake Tribe, which has been beset with criticisms that it has failed to protect endangered children.

The decision was conveyed Friday afternoon to the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who had called for a prompt decision over whether the tribe should be allowed to keep running its social services.

“BIA’s informed our office that they will be taking over the tribal social services,” Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff and legal counsel said.

“I was told that the tribe passed a resolution today ceding it back to the BIA, basically giving it to the government to run,” Bernstein said Friday.

Details of the transition weren’t immediately available Friday afternoon. Hoeven’s office hadn’t yet seen the letter from the BIA formally informing the tribe of its decision or the resolution from the tribal council.

A BIA spokeswoman and Roger Yankton, chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, were not reachable for comment late Friday afternoon.

The decision means the federal government will assume the administration of social services programs for the tribe, and the responsibility to ensure they are performing satisfactorily.

The tribe had been running the programs under contract with the BIA, which provides funding. The arrangement is spelled out under the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, meant to promote tribal self-governance.

The decision followed an on-site review in Fort Totten this week of the tribe’s progress in correcting serious deficiencies involving social services, including illegal placement of foster children and using juvenile detention centers for as residential programs for children.

Critics have said the tribe had ignored many reports of child abuse and neglect over the past five years, including allowing girls to remain in homes with sex offenders.

The most notable public cases of endangered children involved the murders last year of two siblings and the death this summer of an infant whose family suspects neglect.

Hoeven had pushed the BIA for “hard timelines” to correct the problems at Spirit Lake, and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., recently compared the tribe’s administration as “a rudderless ship.”

Spirit Lake Tribe recently hired a new director of social services, Mark Little Owl, with a mandate to fix problems.

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

“It happens once or twice a year, if not more often,” around the country, Yvonne LaRockque, the self-determination officer for the BIA’s Great Plains Region, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, told The Forum last week.

In her eight years of working with the 16 tribes in the three states, she could not recall an earlier instance when the BIA assumed control of a program.

The latest review of the tribe’s progress in correcting deficiencies follows months of efforts to get social services programs back into compliance.

The congressional delegation’s patience had worn thin, and North Dakota’s senators, both of whom serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, called for decisive action.

“This follows the meetings that the senator had up there in Fort Totten and several conversations he and I have had with Director Black,” Bernstein said, referring to BIA Director Mike Black.

“We’re glad they’ve made a decision quickly for the children,” Bernstein said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522


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