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Associated Press, Published July 30 2013

County, tribe partnering to boost social services

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — Benson County is moving about 10 social services eligibility workers to an office on the Spirit Lake Reservation, where most of the county's clients for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other financial assistance live.

The county and tribe plan to sign a three-year lease agreement Wednesday, the Grand Forks Herald reported (http://bit.ly/13jupwa ). The county employees moving to reservation office space currently are scattered at sites in Maddock, Minnewaukan and the Crow Hill District of Spirit Lake. Most staff will now move into office space in Fort Totten, and likely will begin receiving clients there in September.

"Our eligibility people will be much more accessible for our clients there," said Tom Rime, social services director for the county, which includes most of the reservation. "It will bring all our eligibility workers under one roof."

The new eligibility office "also will give our social workers a place to land when they go to the reservation," Rime said.

The office space had been used by Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement personnel who have moved to the new law enforcement center dedicated last week in Fort Totten.

The plan grew out of meetings of county, tribe and other regional officials in response to child protection issues at Spirit Lake. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs took over that system last October after heavy criticism that it was failing to protect vulnerable children on the reservation.

The regional coalition includes representatives from law enforcement, health care and schools. The group has met monthly since early last year to find ways to cooperate and remove jurisdictional barriers that might hamper responses to child protection issues.

Tribe leaders have pointed to chronic unemployment, poverty and a severe lack of quality housing as factors contributing to violence on the reservation, including domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.

"For us, it serves a couple different purposes," Tribal Councilman Leander "Russ" McDonald said of the social services agreement. "Those services will be provided now right at the center of our community, where other government services are located. And many of the people who rely on those services are having a hard time making that 40- to 50-mile round trip to Minnewaukan."

McDonald is involved in a legal battle over who is the rightful chairman of the tribe. Roger Yankton, who also is involved, has advocated for a greater county services presence on the reservation and called the pending agreement "historic" in tribal-county relations.