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By Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published April 07 2013

Spirit Lake tribal judge sees kids’ safety as top concern

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Despite persistent allegations by critics that children of the Spirit Lake Nation remain at risk due to placement with known sex offenders, the tribal court’s chief judge insists that isn’t happening.

“No children are placed with sexual predators,” Judge Shirley Cain said last week.

“I am a stickler for that,” she said. “I have the book (listing convicted sex offenders, their crimes and places of residence). I know who the registered sex offenders are.”

Despite budget cuts, the recent departure of a newly appointed associate judge and a long list of staff and resources she believes the tribal court needs, “There has been progress,” Cain said.

“It’s been a tough, tough year for the people of Spirit Lake,” she said. “But we’re moving in the right direction. We are coming together as professional people, we’re communicating better, and we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

Critics, including a federal whistleblower, have identified several cases of what they allege were the tribe’s failure to investigate, arrest or prosecute known offenders. The U.S. attorney for North Dakota, Tim Purdon, has said each of those allegations has been investigated, some were found to be false and some were active.

One man identified in reports filed by the whistleblower was recently convicted in tribal court of domestic abuse for beating his child with an electric cord. Cain said she could not discuss the case but confirmed the conviction.

Influence?

Cain, a member of the Red Lake Tribe of Ojibwe Indians in northern Minnesota, is a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. She became Spirit Lake’s chief tribal judge a little more than a year ago, just as the child abuse issue boiled over.

She had served earlier in other tribal courts, including as chief judge on her home reservation. She left that position after a few months in 2003, however, following a dispute with tribal officials over what the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, published in Bemidji, Minn., called her efforts to reform the tribal court system and make it more independent of the Red Lake Tribal Council.

Tribal leaders’ influence over the Spirit Lake Tribal Court has been cited by critics as a problem here, too. Cain declined to discuss the court’s relationship with Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. and members of the council.

She works out of a modest office and courtroom not far from the Blue Building, the tribe’s administrative headquarters. Portraits of Sioux warrior leaders Sitting Bull and Rain-in-the-Face hang from a wall by her desk.

Noble goals

When social workers or other authorities come into her court seeking a placement order for children who have been removed from allegedly abusive situations, two equally noble objectives can be at work, she said: a desire to protect the children and a desire to preserve the Spirit Lake Nation’s cultural heritage and identity.

The first preference in getting a child to safety and security is to place the child with close relatives, according to guidelines adopted by the tribe. The next preference is placement with members of the extended family, followed by other Indian families and, finally, non-Indian families.

If the immediate or extended family is found to be not appropriate, the court looks to a placement at the next level.

“The primary concern of the social workers appearing before me is the children,” Cain said. “They are compassionate and they are good at what they do.”

She points to a change she has made in court procedure when dealing with children. Under the tribe’s legal code, a judge previously could sign an order allowing removal of a child from a home for 30 days without a hearing, where social workers would have to make the case for removal and the child’s parent or guardian could challenge the action. Cain said she has required hearings within 72 hours and directed authorities to make every effort to contact all parties involved.

“You’re taking children from their parents,” she said. “There has to be a hearing.”

Help wanted

Spirit Lake’s efforts to improve the safety and security of its children have been hampered this past year by the same factors that made the work difficult long before the abuse reports made headlines, Cain said.

“The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs, which took over child protective services on the reservation last fall) needs more social workers and more permanent staffing,” she said. “We need more mental health professionals, more law enforcement officers. We need more therapists and mental health programming, more court-appointed advocates to speak for the children.”

As of last week, 1,501 parties had appeared before her in the year since she became chief judge, she said. She had until recently another judge to share the workload, but that person has left. The reservation is rife with rumors why, but Cain said she could not discuss the circumstances.

Her budget was cut recently, she said, so it is unlikely she will be able to boost staffing.

“I have three clerks, and they are good, but I need more,” she said. “We need a full-time drug tester, a juvenile probation officer and public defenders. We’re advertising for one, but we should have two or three.”

More professionals in the system could increase the court’s efficiency and take over some of the paperwork that can clog the process, she said, such as drafting restraining orders and orders for custody, child protection and involuntary commitment.

“I do my orders myself, 12 to 20 a week, usually at home,” Cain said, “because there’s no time to do them here during the day.

“So a law clerk would be helpful, too,” she said.