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Patrick Springer, Published November 10 2012

BIA details steps taken for child protection at Spirit Lake

FARGO – The Bureau of Indian Affairs has handled more than a hundred reports of suspected child abuse or neglect on the Spirit Lake reservation since taking over social services Oct. 1.

The BIA has new procedures for placing children in foster homes, including ensuring there are documents showing the placement was ordered by a tribal judge.

Also, the BIA informed staff members of the North Dakota congressional delegation Friday that it has hired a social worker to manage the Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services program.

The delegation, which has been pressing for improvements in handling reports of suspected child abuse and neglect on the reservation, was told that the BIA now has child protective services on call at all hours, in cooperation with BIA law enforcement.

“It’s important that the BIA continue to be engaged, and that they keep the public informed about efforts to ensure child safety on the reservation,” delegation members said in a statement Friday.

“The BIA needs to be make every effort to ensure that children can feel safe in their homes and that families can feel confident that their loved ones are being protected.”

During its first month of running social services, the BIA brought in a dozen social workers from outside the reservation to address serious deficiencies that resulted in the Spirit Lake Tribe yielding control of social services.

Earlier this week, some members of the Spirit Lake Tribe, however, complained that visible progress is not being made.

Six or seven protesters gathered outside tribal headquarters Monday before a general assembly called by the tribal council, holding signs with messages such as, “Who is looking out for the kids of Spirit Lake?” and “Justice for the victims of abuse.”

“I’m not seeing any progress,” Theresa Brien, a tribal member who lives in Grand Forks, said in a phone interview while picketing. “They’re not letting people know what they’re doing. They’re basically blowing smoke. We have a right to know what they’re doing.”

Brien, one of the organizers of the protest, said she hopes the demonstration will motivate other tribal members to speak out to demand better and more open government from tribal leaders.

“We need to stand together to get things done,” Brien said.

“I think they’ve always wanted change,” she added, referring to tribal members, “but they lost hope.”

Starting in April, whistle-blowers alleged that the tribe repeatedly ignored reports of child abuse or neglect for at least five years.

Now, those who file reports of suspected abuse or neglect are to receive written acknowledgement letters, according to procedures put in place by the BIA.

As of late last week, a child protection team meets bi-weekly to discuss cases. Social services staff members meet with criminal investigators and prosecutors to examine possible crimes against children.

To more efficiently handle cases, a new computer system used by the BIA has been installed to enter and track cases, with what the agency describes as “built-in safeguards to provide that services are being provided in a timely manner and are being properly monitored.”

Meanwhile, since the BIA took over the tribe’s social services, staff members have fielded 110 referrals requesting investigation of suspected child abuse or neglect.

According to the BIA briefing provided to congressional staff members Friday, 90 children are in the Spirit Lake social services system.

A breakdown of other social services cases handled in the first month of BIA administration:

E One hundred cases have been identified involving foster care and related services. “The staff is working toward providing services to all of these children,” a BIA summary report said.

E Twenty-four cases are being reviewed to determine whether more services are needed.

E Nine assistance payments were made in October for children in foster care or residential care.

The BIA is setting up mobile units to fingerprint children in its care and is conducting background checks of all adults living in homes with children in its care.

Rhonda Allery, director of Lake Social Services District, which includes Ramsey County, adjacent to the Spirit Lake reservation, said her staff’s dealings with the BIA-run program have been positive.

“We’ve been impressed with their response,” she said. “Very professional, experienced child welfare workers. Communication has been good.”

Dealing with child abuse and neglect, she added, ultimately is a collective responsibility.

“It’s really a community response,” Allery said.

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