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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 03 2012

Protecting Spirit Lake's children: Official says BIA to run tribal child protection for years

GRAND FORKS – The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which assumed responsibility for child protection services at Spirit Lake on Monday, likely will manage the program for several years before returning responsibility to the tribe, the BIA’s regional director said.

“Our goal is to work with them to strengthen the program so someday we can provide them with a… more successful program for them to run and manage,” Bruce Loudermilk, who heads the BIA’s Great Plains Region, told Forum Communications in an interview Tuesday.

“It’ll be their choice” whether to seek to regain responsibility for child welfare, he said. “There is a process they would have to go through,” including submitting a formal request.

“The indication I have so far is that the tribe has willingly acknowledged some of the shortfalls” in child protection, he said. “It’s probably going to take a couple years, several years.”

The Spirit Lake Nation has been beset for months by criticism of its child protection system and what many have called an inadequate response to allegations of serious shortfalls. The tribe last month asked the BIA to take control of a program it had managed since 2001 under a federal law aimed at allowing tribes to take charge of more of their own affairs. Funding had continued to come through the BIA.

“The transition has gone very well,” said Loudermilk, who has made several trips from regional headquarters in Aberdeen, S.D., to Fort Totten, and is receiving regular progress reports from people there.

“It was a tough decision for the tribe, but admirable, too,” he said. “They know we need to do what’s best for the children.”

BIA resources

The transitional staff includes social workers brought in from throughout the Great Plains Region and beyond, “people with extensive backgrounds in social services,” Loudermilk said. “Later, we’ll be advertising to hire people permanently to run these programs,” with a premium placed on applicants’ training and experience.

“It’s going to take a little time to get this all running smoothly,” he said, but “we are going to do everything possible working with the tribe to have enough resources on the ground.”

Loudermilk declined to respond in detail to recent statements by tribal officials laying much of the blame for the tribe’s shortcomings in child protection to inadequate funding by the BIA.

In a letter to tribal members dated Sept. 14 and reported early this week by Forum Communications, the Spirit Lake Tribal Council claimed that it had been hindered by “baseless and offensive accounts of tribal corruption” by two federal officials who alleged serious gaps in child protective services.

Council members said the tribe had “struggled to address serious social problems in the face of substantial funding and other resource deficiencies,” which “made it nearly impossible … to hire and maintain the qualified professionals needed.”

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton, in a news release also dated Sept. 14 but not widely publicized until this week, directly faulted the BIA for “coming in to monitor the tribe’s program but not providing true technical assistance.”

Yankton, asserting that his administration has been trying for more than a year “to correct the mismanagement of the past,” suggested the BIA and other federal agencies and officials are “more concerned with potential liability than with executing (their) trust responsibilities.”

Loudermilk said this week that he had not seen either the Tribal Council letter or the news release containing Yankton’s statements, but he was aware of the remarks through news reports.

“I understand the tribe’s point of view,” he said. But “we did provide technical assistance and we did work with the tribe on their corrective action plans, and we didn’t feel there was enough progress being made fast enough.”

Working together

North Dakota’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican John Hoeven, who have pressed tribal leaders to deal with deficiencies and who supported the BIA intervention, declined to comment on the tribe’s complaints.

“We’ll stay engaged,” a spokesman for Hoeven said this week. “They need to fix it.”

Loudermilk said the tribe and the BIA have “made a good faith effort to work together,” and “all my interactions with the tribe have been positive. I may not have to agree with them on everything, but I can still work well with them.

“Some of the things we’re dealing with are very sensitive matters,” he said. “We have a job to do, to protect the children. Whatever happened in the past, now is the time to see that the program functions the best it can.

“I believe we have the same goal in mind.”

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald