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By Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published February 22 2013

No word if public can attend ‘town hall’ on Spirit Lake child protection services

GRAND FORKS – A meeting of senior Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and leaders of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe to assess BIA progress in dealing with child protection issues on the reservation has been scheduled for Wednesday, but it is not clear how public that discussion will be.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and the two other members of the state’s congressional delegation had announced on Feb. 8 that top BIA and Interior Department officials had agreed to conduct a “town hall meeting” at Spirit Lake to update members of the tribe on efforts to better protect the tribe’s children and to give tribal members a chance to voice concerns.

Hoeven had called the federal officials to his office to “urge them to exercise more transparency” in their handling of the issue, spokesman Don Canton said two weeks ago.

Canton said Friday that the meeting has been set for 10 a.m. Wednesday (it originally was announced as 1 p.m.) at the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort near Fort Totten.

However, a BIA official told Hoeven that the BIA had “left it to the Tribal Council to decide” if it is to be an open meeting.

“That’s not what we wanted,” Canton said, adding that Hoeven, after learning about the uncertainty concerning the nature of the meeting, spoke with Kevin Washburn, Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, “and pushed to have the meeting open.”

Washburn, Interior’s oversight official responsible for the BIA, “said he will work with the tribe to do that.”

Hoeven “has been pushing them for months to be transparent and let the people of Spirit Lake know what they’re doing,” Canton said. “They agreed to hold a public meeting to go through the progress they’re making and also to gather input and give community members and tribal officials an opportunity to express their concerns.”

Darren Walkingshield, the tribe’s chief administrative officer, said late Friday that he had not heard from the BIA about the meeting and could not comment further. Chairman Roger Yankton did not respond to phone or email messages seeking comment.

Who will attend

Canton said he was not sure who would participate in the meeting, but he said it would include senior BIA officials, representatives from the congressional offices and tribal leaders, and would be led by Larry Roberts, the deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department.

Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who joined Hoeven in his Feb. 8 call for a “town hall meeting” at Spirit Lake, will be in session next week and unable to attend, Canton said.

He said BIA Director Mike Black, who was part of a “strike team” sent by the bureau last fall to assess the child protection system at Spirit Lake, will not be there because he is scheduled to testify before a congressional committee.

The BIA took over child protection services on the reservation on Oct. 1 and has brought in social workers and other personnel to try to upgrade the system.

Critic in D.C.

Members of Hoeven’s staff met earlier this month with Betty Jo Krenz, one of the more outspoken critics of how tribal officials have dealt with the crisis.

Krenz, who said she saw or heard evidence of serious and widespread child abuse and neglect while working with Head Start and foster care children at Spirit Lake, also met with a member of Heitkamp’s staff in Washington.

In an interview with Forum Communications last July, she said her whistle-blowing and pushing for corrective actions had led to her being fired a year earlier, but she felt compelled to continue.

“When you see 6-year-old girls telling you they were raped ... when you have a teen-aged girl tell you she had to get high before she went to a party because she knew she was going to be gang-raped ... when you see dead children – you can’t quit, you can’t stop,” she said then. “It’s not a bad movie. It’s life.”

In a report posted Monday on the “Restless Spirit” blog, which also has been sharply critical of Spirit Lake tribal leaders, the BIA and others involved in the roiling controversy, Krenz said she provided members of the senators’ staffs with “a large amount of documents and personal statements from enrolled members” of the tribe.

Krenz wrote that she appreciated the time members of the senators’ staffs gave her, but she was disappointed that they appeared to know little more than what they had been told by the BIA.

“I do not have any faith that these (BIA) updates are a true picture of the horrible situation that really exists,” she wrote.

“I tried really hard to make these guys understand that this may be a complex situation because of the jurisdictional issues, but it is simple on the humane side of it,” Krenz wrote. “These kids need help NOW, this has been going on a long time and there is not time to hash out silly political ideals.

“I understand that there will have to be laws changed or simply clarified, but while that is happening somebody needs to save these kids now!”

Transparency

Krenz said she also discussed with the senators’ staffers “the importance of hearing the issues from the people (who) live there ... not behind closed doors with guards so the meeting is one-sided ... but instead (in) an open forum held at a time that is well-known throughout the community, at a time where working people can attend.”

She said she “showed documents that tell of enrolled members who are afraid to come forward with their complaints, thinking if they do the tribal government will retaliate against them.”

Canton confirmed that Krenz was in Hoeven’s office earlier this month.

“I was told it was a very good meeting,” Canton said. “She was informative and very supportive of what we’re doing. We’ve been after them all along to be more transparent, just as she has.”

But “the impetus for this (town hall discussion) comes out of the meeting we had a few weeks ago” with Washburn, he said.

“At that meeting, the senator urged him and the BIA to be more transparent and to hold a public meeting,” Canton said. “They say they are making progress, and they need to tell people that.”