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Published September 19 2012

Forum editorial: Takeover by BIA welcome

The unusually quick decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take over Spirit Lake Nation social services underscores the failure of tribal leadership to protect children. In formal terms, the tribe asked the federal government to take control, but let’s be honest. The tribe had no choice after it was clear its own mismanagement of child protection services was bordering on criminal.

The pressure to act on behalf of the tribe’s children had been building for months. Complaints and concerns from residents of the northeast North Dakota reservation became more than anecdotes when the U.S. attorney for North Dakota conducted investigations that uncovered criminality as serious as murder. Child welfare professionals put their jobs on the line when they blew the whistle on the tribe’s failures.

Media reports, specifically the work of Chuck Haga of the Grand Forks Herald and Patrick Springer of The Forum, exposed a situation that was so appalling it was hard to believe.

North Dakota’s senators got involved (both are on the Indian Affairs committee) and things began to happen quickly. The takeover/handover of social services from the tribe to the BIA will officially take place Oct. 1, but for practical purposes, the change is proceeding now. And the BIA should be closely monitored because the agency’s record on these kinds of matters is not the best.

The predictable reaction from Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton and his supporters has not been encouraging. He has blamed everyone and everything except his poor leadership. Instead of owning up to his responsibility, Yankton has made excuses and shifted blame. Not enough money to do the job, he said. It’s the media and other “outsiders” creating the scandal, he suggested. And as has been his practice, when asked to comment about the situation and the takeover, he has been conveniently unavailable.

While culpability is not Yankton’s alone, now is the time for honest and compassionate tribal leadership. He’s not been willing to step up.

Make no mistake about it: The speed with which the BIA moved to take over tribal social services is uncommon. Indeed, the times such a takeover has happened in Indian country can be counted on one hand. The action underscores the seriousness of the mess at Spirit Lake.

As the BIA moves to locate and protect children at risk, the next phase has to be a determination by the U.S. attorney and others whether tribal officials are criminally responsible for an epidemic of abuse, neglect and even the deaths of children. We suspect those investigations are well under way.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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