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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published April 06 2013

Overcoming child protection hurdles at Spirit Lake

SPIRIT LAKE NATION – As health and social service professionals grappled over the past year with issues of child protection at Spirit Lake, they found a disturbing trend at Mercy Hospital in neighboring Devils Lake, N.D.

“We were hearing about an alarming problem of Native women having babies and testing positive for illicit substances,” said Tom Rime, director of social services for Benson County, which includes most of the Spirit Lake reservation.

“We and the people at Lake Region Social Services (serving Ramsey County) talked with the tribal leaders and others and said, ‘Let’s not worry about who has jurisdiction here,’ and together we all took responsibility,” he said.

The tribe, social services and other agencies set up a coalition last spring to meet regularly – weekly at first, now monthly. With the situation at Mercy Hospital, they set up a rotating on-call list to respond immediately in cases where babies appeared to be at risk.

That quick, collective response is one example of what Rime sees as progress in Spirit Lake’s continuing struggle to respond to allegations of abuse and sexual abuse of children.

“It’s going to take time,” he said. “There are long-term systemic problems we’re dealing with. But I see more transparency, more efforts to improve services and communication, and they deserve credit for that.”

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton said last week that Benson County’s governing body held a joint meeting recently with the Tribal Council at Fort Totten, and there is talk of relocating county social services there.

“That was historic, that meeting,” Yankton said. “I know those people. I grew up with them. We all have the same dreams, and we’re saying we’re not dealing with ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ – the children – but ‘ours.’

“We’re all in the same boat and going in the right direction.”

Jurisdiction

Rime came to Benson County a year ago after working 25 years in community corrections in Rochester, Minn. His wife, Patricia, grew up in Devils Lake and works as a juvenile court officer for Ramsey, Benson and Towner counties.

As much as 90 percent of Benson County’s social services clients are American Indian, he said, and his office has a satellite office at Spirit Lake’s Crow Hill district.

Of his two social workers, one works primarily with elderly and disabled clients. The other handles child protection, foster care and licensed child care.

With child protection on the reservation, “it took a long time to sort out the jurisdictional questions,” he said. “Those can be quite complex. Where is the abuse report coming from? Are the children enrolled members of the tribe? Where do they reside? Where does the alleged abuser reside?”

But regular meetings with all the state, federal and tribal agencies have resolved many of those hurdles, Rime said. “It may not solve all the problems. But if you’re talking and building relationships, that’s an important first step.”

Strengthening families

Officials at the state Department of Human Services and regional centers in Devils Lake and Grand Forks agree that communication has improved.

In the past year, nearly 1,000 American Indian clients received such services as alcohol or drug evaluation and treatment and mental health care, said Kate Kenna, regional director of the Lake Region and Northeast human service centers.

“We’re providing help with parenting and mental health counseling,” she said. People may use a new walk-in clinic to see licensed addiction counselors.

“There’s been a real effort from Lake Region to engage people at Spirit Lake and strengthen those families,” she said, and Chief Tribal Judge Shirley Cain “is very comfortable calling us and asking, ‘What can you do for this person or this family?’ And she does a good job of following up to make sure it’s happening.”

Kenna said she is “very optimistic” about conditions improving at Spirit Lake. “I believe the kids will be safer and safer as we work together,” she said.

Born addicted

Women who used drugs during their pregnancy avoided prenatal care until they delivered their babies at Mercy Hospital, Rime said, so their use of painkillers, meth or other drugs wouldn’t be detected. Social workers saw three or four such cases a month last year, but it happens less frequently now.

“We’re on watch now with a woman who already has had two children taken away, and she’s pregnant, and I think it’s likely this next one will be taken, too,” he said.

“We’ve seen children born addicted. They get an immediate, urgent response by us and the medical professionals,” he said. Some mothers are open to treatment, he said, “but if necessary, we draw up court papers.”

Ensuring safety

The state provides funding for 34 children from the reservation who are in foster care, said Dean Sturn, foster care program administrator for the state Department of Human Services.

“We’ve stepped up our oversight to ensure there is monthly case worker visitation to those foster kids by Spirit Lake social workers,” Sturn said. “We also have quarterly child and family team meetings (involving) caseworkers, foster parents, biological parents and other service providers, such as therapists and educators. They make sure safety is ensured and they’re working on a permanency plan.”

More foster care children are supported by tribal funds and are under the authority of Bureau of Indian Affairs social services, and “it’s difficult to say” what improvement has occurred in those cases, Sturn said, but “communication is better.”

Permanent staff

Rime said he understands the tribe’s desire to do all it can to preserve American Indian families, including placing American Indian children with American Indian foster parents.

“But if they can’t stay where they are, something is better than nothing,” he said. “Social workers do their best to find an acceptable placement. But we need more quality foster homes both on and off the reservation.”

The BIA, which took over child protection at Spirit Lake last fall, continues to be understaffed, he said.

The federal agency has rotated trained social workers to Spirit Lake, but local officials have urged the BIA to bring in more permanent staff. At a “town hall” meeting at Spirit Lake earlier this year, a Devils Lake middle school principal said the lack of more permanent staff was adversely affecting the duration of foster care placements.

“People rotating through is not acceptable long term,” Rime said. “But it’s hard to blame people who are in there doing their darndest. Their response time is faster, and they’re more responsible, more professional” than previous social workers who lacked training.

BIA officials say they’re recruiting permanent staffers for Spirit Lake, but required background checks take time.

There have been complaints that people brought in to help have been dismissed arbitrarily.

“It is a legitimate criticism,” Rime said. “Certainly, job security has been an issue. It can be a problem if you get a good social worker in there and they bring things up that leadership doesn’t want to hear.”

The larger community needs to get involved, he said. “The professionals can’t solve these complex, multigenerational problems without the complete involvement of the community.”

Coming Monday

Tribal judge Shirley Cain says court, social workers see children’s safety as top concern.


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