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Patrick Springer, Published September 30 2012

Tribal council cites lack of support

FARGO – The Spirit Lake Tribal Council blamed a “tremendous shortfall” of support from the federal government as a reason it decided to surrender control of its social services.

The council, in a letter to tribal members dated Sept. 14, also said it was hampered by “baseless and offensive accounts of tribal corruption” by two federal officials who reported significant gaps in the tribe’s programs to protect abused and neglected children.The handover of the tribe’s social services programs to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which funds the tribe’s programs, takes effect today after the council’s decision Sept. 14.

The letter to tribal members and a news release previously not made available were obtained by Forum Communications.

In the letter, council members said the tribe has “struggled to address serious social problems in the face of substantial funding and other resource deficiencies, as well as other challenges that are not of the Tribe’s own making.”

The tribe has strived in recent months to improve its social services programs in collaboration with the BIA, the council said.

“However, the tremendous shortfall in BIA resources allocated to support the Tribal Social Services Program have made it nearly impossible for the Tribe to hire and maintain the qualified professionals needed to provide services,” the letter continued.

“What is worse, the baseless and offensive accounts of Tribal corruption that federal employees Dr. Michael Tilus and Thomas Sullivan have repeatedly made to the press have similarly hindered the Tribe’s efforts to address these problems,” the council letter said, without listing specific examples.

Tilus, a clinical psychologist, once directed behavioral health programs at the Indian Health Service clinic in Fort Totten, but has since been reassigned.

In April, Tilus wrote a detailed “letter of grave concern” about the tribe’s child protection services, saying officials had repeatedly ignored child abuse and neglect reports for five years.

Sullivan, a regional administrator with the Department of Health and Human Services in Denver, wrote a series of letters over the summer detailing similar allegations of child abuse and neglect that he said were mishandled or not addressed.

The two officials’ allegations, first reported by Forum Communications and later by other news outlets, were among the reports that prompted Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., to urge the BIA to correct serious deficiencies in the tribe’s social services programs.

“The Tribe is saddened that its partners in the federal government have failed to respect the Tribe’s commitment to its people and its duties as a sovereign government,” the tribal council letter said.

A press release, also dated Sept. 14, included a statement from Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton criticizing the BIA for what he complained was inaction, and deflected blame for the problems to his predecessors.

“My administration has done its best to correct the mismanagement of the past,” he said. “The BIA has been aware of these problems for years, yet it has done little to assist the Tribe.

“To date the Tribe has been disappointed with the response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, other Federal agencies, and Federal officials, coming in to monitor the Tribe’s program but not providing true technical assistance.

“Many times it seems the Federal government is more concerned with potential liability than with executing its trust responsibilities.”

A BIA spokeswoman could not be reached for comment this weekend.

Nonetheless, Yankton said in the statement that he hoped handing over social services to the BIA would improve relations.

The tribal council, in its letter to members, said surrendering control of social services, except for the general assistance program, which it will continue to operate, “neither diminishes Tribal sovereignty nor tarnishes the Tribe’s proud history and strength in the face of adversity.”

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