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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published June 18 2013

Senators seek answers on child death at Spirit Lake

GRAND FORKS – An angry Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she confronted federal and tribal officials Tuesday and demanded answers to what led to the “mysterious death” of a 3-year-old girl Thursday on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Heitkamp said she is “deeply concerned” that another child may have fallen victim to a child protection system “that clearly is broken,” despite more than a year of intense scrutiny and the takeover of child protection services at Spirit Lake in October by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Somehow, with all this attention, all this ballyhoo, we still lost another child,” she said. “Tell me how did that happen? I’m beside myself.”

Meanwhile, a top aide to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., called the girl’s death “another serious and sad event” that demands quick and transparent action by tribal, federal and other authorities.

Hoeven “is very concerned” about the latest death of a Spirit Lake child, said Ryan Bernstein, the senator’s chief of staff and point man on American Indian issues.

“This is a terrible tragedy,” he said. “We need to find a way to stop this from happening.”

The FBI initially said the dead child was a boy. A spokesman in Minneapolis said Tuesday that he had provided that information to reporters Monday after receiving incorrect information.

Don Canton, Hoeven’s director of communications, said the office has contacted BIA Director Mike Black and Kevin Washburn, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, who took part in discussions as the crisis at Spirit Lake ratcheted up last year.

“We want to arrange another meeting with them,” Canton said. “One of the things we want to ask is why there isn’t more transparency.

“We have to stay on this,” he said. “We need to get some answers on this case, and we need to hear that it’s being pursued aggressively.”

In whose care?

Bernstein said he was told the dead child had been in a tribal foster care program funded by federal dollars passed through the state Department of Human Services. The program is administered by the tribe under agreements with the state. However, Bernstein said he did not know whether the child was in foster care at the time of her death or if she had been returned to the care of a family member.

Heitkamp, who said she “had a very pointed discussion with the BIA (Tuesday) morning,” said she was told the girl and a sibling or siblings “were returned to that home by a Tribal Court order,” but she “can’t get a clear statement from anyone on how that child got back in the home,” which is near St. Michael, N.D., on the reservation.

She said she was told the BIA has nine children placed in foster care and Tribal Social Services has 30 children in “family placement,” including apparently the child who died Thursday.

“This is front row center until we get a personal assurance that kids are safe” at Spirit Lake, she said. “The BIA may not have jurisdiction. I don’t care. We need to figure out a safety net.”

Federal, state and tribal agencies and leaders “all have to take responsibility that a child died, once again,” she said, “after we all said this couldn’t happen again.”

‘Veil of silence’

Heitkamp decried the “speculation and rumor” that have swept over the reservation since Thursday, and she challenged investigative agencies to be more forthcoming.

“I am not buying that we would hurt the criminal investigation by understanding how that child ended up back in that home,” she said. “Finding out is essential to protecting children on the reservation. That information needs to be disclosed as soon as possible. I am really tired of hearing that this is about maintaining a veil of silence on criminal investigations when we have children at risk.”

Hoeven, who for months has urged tribal leaders and federal officials working with them to be more open about their efforts to improve child protection on the reservation, also expressed concern about the lack of information released thus far on the latest child death, Bernstein said.

Neither the U.S. attorney’s office nor the FBI has released the name of the child, how she died, whether other children in the home were removed or any other details, citing policy against commenting on an ongoing investigation. They offered no explanation for why they were withholding the name.

Attempts to reach U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon late Tuesday were unsuccessful.

BIA police at Fort Totten, N.D., also have declined to provide further information, referring inquiries to BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling in Washington, D.C. Darling said Monday that she had no additional information.

Open, transparent

In early September, as Spirit Lake reeled from allegations of widespread child abuse and a severely flawed child protection system, Hoeven went to the reservation and urged tribal leaders to act fast and openly to deal with what many were calling a crisis.

“We have to make sure the children are being taken care of and are safe,” he said as he met then with members of the Tribal Council, BIA officials and others. “It has to be an open and transparent process.”

He said federal agencies would have to step in if the tribe didn’t make quick and adequate progress. A short time later, tribal leaders – citing a lack of personnel and funding – asked the BIA to assume responsibility for child protection programs at Spirit Lake. The BIA took over Oct. 1.

In February, Hoeven, Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., met with senior officials of the Interior Department and BIA and “pressed them not only to use every legal and administrative measure in their jurisdiction to ensure the safety of children … but also to be transparent and forthcoming with tribal members about what they’re doing,” members of the delegation said in a joint statement at the time.

The Interior officials agreed to conduct a “town hall meeting” at the reservation. That meeting took place Feb. 27. A panel of high-ranking federal officials tried to assure members of the tribe that they were making progress in shoring up the system, but that met with considerable skepticism and anger.

Further complicating the situation at Spirit Lake are internal divisions, including an effort by critics of Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton to force a recall election.