Man Convicted of Child Abuse at Spirit Lake Reservation

March 29, 2013

The tribal court at North Dakota’s Spirit Lake reservation has convicted a man accused of beating one of his children in an incident that had been flagged by a federal whistleblower concerned about child abuse on the reservation.

Michael Greywater, Jr. was accused of beating one of the children with electrical cords. Greywater was convicted of domestic assault of a child and sentenced to 180 days in jail, with an option for release within 60 days, according to people familiar with the matter. It’s a short sentence — Spirit Lake is able only to assign sentences of up to one year — but marks a step forward in the tribe’s ability to hold abusers accountable.

Spirit Lake, a small reservation with a population of about 6,600, has been under scrutiny since a federal official, Michael Tilus, who worked as the director of behavioral health on the reservation at the time, sent a letter of “grave concern” in April last year detailing incidents of child abuse that had gone uninvestigated and unpunished. His report, which was leaked to the public, was followed by several reports by another federal whistleblower, Thomas Sullivan, an official in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. Sullivan flagged the Greywater case in some of his reports.

The tribe’s social services agency, TSS, was taken over by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in October in a rare move that underscored the depth of the problems surrounding the agency. The BIA is now responsible for the welfare of the 118 children in the social services program, as of March 20. The state provides additional funds for foster care for 31 other children, whose cases continue to be handled by the tribe.

Since then, some residents have questioned how much has changed. Sullivan has continued to file reports alleging continued abuse that has gone unaddressed, including one sent today — his 13th.

Both the tribe and the BIA have been reluctant to detail what improvements they have made. In February, North Dakota’s senators and congressional representative pushed the BIA to hold a town-hall meeting, where BIA officials said that the agency has been following up on several hundred abuse allegations and has hired additional staff to handle the high caseload.

In the meeting, Spirit Lake tribal members vented their frustration with what they saw as a lack of progress in dealing with abuse allegations, and an unwillingness by the Tribal Council, the elected ruling body that governs the tribe, to address their concerns.

The Greywater children were placed in foster care about 14 months ago, but lived in fear of being returned to their father ever since, according to Sullivan’s report and people familiar with the children’s situation. The TSS retained control of their cases, and Sullivan reported that because Greywater is related to the tribal chairman, people aware of the children’s situation feared they might be returned to him.

On Monday, tribal prosecutor Joe Vetsch brought the case against Greywater. Two of the children testified in court about what had happened, according to people familiar with the matter. Judge Shirley Cain, who appeared troubled by one of the child’s testimonies, according to one attendee, declined to hear any more witnesses before handing down the sentence.

For now, the children will stay on with their foster family for at least a year, but may be eligible for permanent adoption elsewhere.

It is difficult to gauge how many other cases have been pursued because the Tribal Court doesn’t release information about cases. Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton didn’t immediately respond to a phone call or email seeking a comment.

Because the case involved abuse, federal authorities also have jurisdiction and the option to pursue felony charges if they determine the evidence is strong enough to bring a federal case. The federal authorities declined to pursue charges in this case.

As a rule, North Dakota U.S. District Attorney Tim Purdon, whose district includes Spirit Lake,  doesn’t comment on individual cases. But he told FRONTLINE: “I have been briefed on the investigations of the various allegations of criminal abuse of children at Spirit Lake that have been reported directly to me in the past several months, and I am very comfortable that FBI and BIA law enforcement have conducted serious and thorough investigations of these allegations.”

Purdon added that while some allegations were based on false information or couldn’t be substantiated, others had resulted in criminal investigations that are still ongoing. According to reports from the attorney’s website, the office has secured four convictions for child abuse or neglect, and two for child sexual abuse, on the Spirit Lake reservation since 2011.

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