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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 21 2012

Little Owl out as Spirit Lake social services director as feds plan takeover of department

Mark Little Owl, hired in mid-August by the Spirit Lake Tribe to restore its embattled social services department, will not continue as director after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs takes over the department on Oct. 1, he confirmed Friday.

Little Owl, who signed a four-year contract with the tribe, said he expects to stay on in another role, perhaps as a liaison between the BIA and the tribe.

“My No. 1 goal now is to get the program back to the tribe,” he said.

He said federal authorities told him he brought improvements to the department, “but the problems go back six or eight years or longer, and we didn’t have enough time” to turn things around.

High-level BIA and other Interior Department officials met with tribal officials to review efforts to correct problems in its administration of social services programs. On Monday, an Interior assistant secretary announced that the federal government would take control at the tribe’s request.

The tribe had assumed authority for foster care and other social services programs in 2001 under federal legislation aimed at enhancing tribes’ control of their own affairs. But a string of official and unofficial reports of child abuse and complaints of inadequate tribal oversight and investigation led ultimately to the federal intervention.

Members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation issued a statement endorsing the transfer of authority. Both U.S. senators, Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican John Hoeven, are members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and had pressed tribal officials in recent weeks to deal with the mounting criticism.

It was right for the federal government to take charge, they said in their joint statement, “until Spirit Lake can demonstrate, in an open and transparent way, that tribal government is capable of effectively protecting vulnerable children.”

Specifics of the transition are still being worked out, Little Owl said, adding that he’s concerned about the future of Tribal Social Services staff members, including several he hired since he became director.

“Part of me was disappointed,” he said of the federal takeover. “I did my best in the weeks I had.” But he said he looks forward to working with tribal and federal professionals to rebuild the social services programs and restore them to tribal authority.

Little Owl, 34, who is Mandan Indian from the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold and Hunkpapa Sioux from Standing Rock, holds a master’s degree in social work from UND. He had been director of behavioral health at a clinic serving the Three Affiliated Tribes when he was recruited by Spirit Lake leaders.

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton said the difficult situation at Spirit Lake was made clear to Little Owl. “When we recruited him, we laid it all on the table,” Yankton said.

In a showdown meeting Sept. 7 with Hoeven, attended by tribal leaders, BIA officials and others, Little Owl told the senator he had expanded his staff of certified social workers, reached out to neighboring counties and law enforcement agencies and improved how the department operates day to day — including ensuring that the department’s phones are always answered.

“I wish we had had more time,” he said Friday.