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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published January 22 2013

Spirit Lake official faces charges in domestic disturbance

GRAND FORKS – Mark Little Owl, hired last summer by the Spirit Lake Sioux to manage the tribe’s beleaguered child protection program, faces assault and other charges in connection with an Aug. 21 domestic disturbance at a Grand Forks apartment.

Charges of theft, simple assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were filed in Grand Forks District Court on Dec. 31 against Little Owl, identified in court documents as the father of two boys living in the south Grand Forks apartment with their mother.

Patrick Rosenquist, Little Owl’s Grand Forks attorney, said that Little Owl turned himself in to local authorities on Jan. 7 and posted bond. He intends to plead not guilty to the charges, Rosenquist said.

The Spirit Lake Tribal Council was made aware of the charges on Jan. 8, according to sources on the reservation. Phone calls Tuesday to Little Owl, Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services and tribal administrators were not returned.

Little Owl, 34, of Fort Totten, is charged with theft of property worth more than $500, a cellphone belonging to the woman. That charge is a Class B felony,

An information filed with the court also accuses him of simple assault, a Class B misdemeanor, for “willfully causing bodily injury” to the woman “by striking her in the shoulder and face with his fist.”

The charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a Class A misdemeanor, also stems from the Aug. 21 incident, where according to the information “the defendant physically threw (one of the boys) from the bedroom when the domestic violence was taking place (and the boy) attempted to intercede.”

A no-contact order was issued on Jan. 7, barring Little Owl from contacting or approaching the woman.

A preliminary hearing on the criminal charges was set for Feb. 11, with an arraignment hearing on March 5.

Grand Forks District Court records show that Little Owl pleaded guilty to a simple assault charge in 2004. Two other charges of simple assault, in June and July 2009, were dismissed, however, according to the records.

Under fire

Little Owl, 34, was hired at Spirit Lake in mid-August, about a week before the actions detailed in the Dec. 31 court filing in Grand Forks. He was given a four-year contract as director of Tribal Social Services.

Holder of two degrees in social work from UND, a bachelor’s degree in 2007 and a master’s in 2009, he was director of behavioral health for the Three Affiliated Tribes in western North Dakota when he was recruited by Spirit Lake Chairman Roger Yankton and the Tribal Council.

He took charge of a social services program under fire for allegedly leaving or putting children at risk, including inadequate record-keeping, jurisdictional confusion and delayed or missed background checks on prospective foster parents.

A whistle-blower with the federal Administration for Children and Families had filed several “mandated reports” – his 11th was filed last week – alleging numerous specific instances where the tribe had failed to protect children from abuse, including sexual abuse.

State funding of foster care on the reservation was suspended for a time last year, and the BIA – which funds most of the tribe’s social services – sent a team of officials to Spirit Lake to assess the tribe’s efforts to overcome problems. The BIA acted at the request of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who urged tribal leaders in tough language to fix things.

Spirit Lake appeared to be “a rudderless ship,” Conrad told the Grand Forks Herald on Aug. 23.

In a Sept. 7 meeting with tribal and BIA leaders on the reservation, Hoeven grilled Little Owl on what had been done to improve the system in the weeks since his hiring. Little Owl said he had expanded his staff of certified social workers, reached out to child welfare professionals in neighboring counties and improved day-to-day operations of the department.

Little Owl faulted what he said were “false allegations” and negative media reports for making it more difficult for the tribe to address its acknowledged deficiencies. He said it had hampered recruitment of the professionals the tribe desperately needs.

But after spending several days conferring with the BIA “strike team,” the Tribal Council asked the federal bureau to retake control of child protection programs on the reservation, which the BIA did on Oct. 1.

Little Owl was ousted from those responsibilities, but the tribe retained him as director of other social services programs still under the tribe’s control.

In an interview in mid-­September, Little Owl – whose father was Mandan Indian of the Three Affiliated Tribes, his mother Hunkpapa Sioux of the Standing Rock reservation – said that he had lived in seven different foster homes as a child. He said that experience and the effect it had on him and a sister guided his approach to child welfare.

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