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Patrick Springer, Published November 04 2012

Official says children at risk an ‘ongoing epidemic’ at Spirit Lake in new report

FARGO – A child who routinely soiled underpants as a defense against rape. Little boys brazenly engaging in outdoor sex acts. Children left in homes with known sexual predators.

Those incidents are among an alleged “ongoing epidemic” of children who remain at risk on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake reservation despite four months of abuse reports from Thomas Sullivan, a regional human services administrator.

But a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees law enforcement and social services on the reservation, takes issue with the factual accuracy of some of Sullivan’s allegations, and said public safety is a top priority.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs is working hard to strengthen Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services program and to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of Indian Country,” Nedra Darling, a BIA spokeswoman, said in a statement to Forum Communications.

Sullivan, who serves as administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, has repeatedly written federal law enforcement and BIA officials to pass along child abuse reports that have come to him.

His latest, sent Tuesday, vents deep frustration in what he regards as inaction despite official claims of progress. Last month, the BIA assumed control of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services programs to address deficiencies.

“In the last four months there is little I have seen to suggest anything but failure,” Sullivan wrote in an email Tuesday. “Spirit Lake children remain in the care of sexual predators.”

All of the information in Sullivan’s reports “has either been adjudicated or investigated,” Darling said in her statement.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs considers any and all reported allegations of child abuse extremely serious,” she added, noting that the BIA encourages anyone who suspects child abuse to immediately report their concerns to law enforcement authorities so appropriate action can be taken.

Sullivan catalogued new reports of suspected abuse as well as earlier cases he believes haven’t been acted upon in his latest report, sent to Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, and Sue Settles, a senior social services administrator for the BIA.

Among the reports:

• A preschool girl who gave a “detailed and accurate” account of an oral sex act on the first day of class at Head Start. The girl was wearing what were described as “hooker clothes with stiletto heels.”

• Two boys under 10 years of age who were “constantly engaging in anal sex in their neighbors’ yards” in St. Michael, a community on the reservation, in August. In response to reports, a former tribal social services director said the problem won’t recur because he had the boys sign statements that they won’t do it again.

• A preschool child soils his or her underpants at bedtime, according to foster parents. An evaluation at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Grand Forks determined the child, and another, had been raped and needed immediate mental health therapy.

Spirit Lake tribal social services reportedly refused to approve payment, according to Sullivan.

• A 9-year-old girl left alone at home by her mother, who had to go to work, was raped. The rape was reported to BIA law enforcement, and there was no attempt to collect a rape kit. The mother was “hauled” to tribal court, but there was no effort to question the alleged rapist, or charge him with failing to register as a sex offender as required by law, according to Sullivan.

“Apparently the good old days continue at Spirit Lake, at least for sexual predators,” he wrote.

• Children remain in the homes of known sexual predators, placed there by tribal social services, despite Sullivan’s earlier reports of their vulnerability to ongoing rape.

The “ongoing epidemic” of sexual abuse means “hundreds” of children on the Spirit Lake reservation are at risk, a result of inaction by tribal and federal officials, Sullivan wrote.

Law enforcement on the reservation, a service provided by the BIA, is ineffective and contributes to an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” at Spirit Lake, he wrote.

“Many believe, based on their own observations and experience, they enjoy little or no law enforcement protection from abuse, criminality or corruption,” Sullivan wrote.

The BIA maintains standards of professionalism, and public safety is a priority, Darling said.

“The BIA upholds the highest level of integrity and accountability of all its employees,” she said in the statement.

She also disputed Sullivan’s assertion that the BIA has failed to investigate allegations.

“An assumption that an allegation is not being thoroughly investigated is inaccurate, and the facts are contrary to the accusations being made by Mr. Sullivan,” Darling said in the statement.

Darling accused Sullivan of failing to follow proper procedures in his reports, which calls for immediately notifying local law enforcement agencies so they can take action.

“Mr. Sullivan did not follow this practice but rather reported to non-law enforcement entities, including the media,” she said.

Sullivan declined requests to be interviewed by Forum Communications and directed questions to a spokesman for his agency. Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declined to comment, and directed inquiries to the BIA.

Purdon, the top federal prosecutor in North Dakota, has declined to comment on the credibility of Sullivan’s reports, but said federal investigators are looking into the reports.

“I’ve been briefed by the BIA on the investigation of these allegations,” he said. “I’m satisfied that BIA is taking these allegations seriously and trying to follow up on the limited information that’s available.”

A spokesman for the FBI also would not talk about Sullivan’s specific allegations, or Sullivan’s criticism of the conduct of FBI agents who have interviewed his sources.

“The FBI wants the people of Spirit Lake and North Dakota to know when this type of activity comes to our attention, the FBI looks into these things,” said Agent Kyle Loven, an FBI spokesman.

“If there are people to be held responsible, we’ll investigate and do our best to bring them to justice,” he said.

Much of Sullivan’s report was a rebuttal of public statements by officials who have said they are making progress in fixing problems at Spirit Lake.

He repeated allegations that tribal officials have shredded records, sometimes at the direction of the tribal chairman, and ignored court orders by tribal court judges.

He said tribal social services officials placed children back in homes with addicted and abusive parents after tribal judges placed them in foster homes.

Back in abusive homes, the children are being sexually abused and nothing is being done to protect them, Sullivan wrote.

The BIA, which assumed control of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services on Oct. 1, has social work staff available on staff or on call around the clock to respond to reports of endangered children, Darling said.

“They are working nights and weekends when necessary to provide a quick response to reports,” she said. Staffing has increased, and new procedures have been put in place, she said, but did not address specific allegations of child protection failures.


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