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As Child Abuse Persists at Spirit Lake, Congress Steps In

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A congressional committee has begun investigating why child abuse and neglect persists on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake reservation, almost two years after the federal government stepped in to address the problem.

At a hearing on Tuesday, tribal leaders and officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services are expected to be asked about ongoing allegations of abuse and neglect on the reservation, and the lack of visible progress in correcting the problems.

“Clearly the current system is failing our children,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in a statement. “The goal of this hearing is to shine a light on the situation and promote a dialogue about solutions.”

Cramer said he called the hearing, to be held by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, to assess the root of the problems at Spirit Lake, and determine whether congressional action is needed beyond the intervention by the BIA and other federal agencies.

The government took over responsibility for child welfare in 2012, amid complaints from whistleblowers that children were placed in homes with known sex offenders, and that other children had died due to severe abuse or neglect.

Since that time, tribal, state and federal authorities have said they have worked together to address the problem. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has declined to discuss its efforts at Spirit Lake with FRONTLINE. But the new tribal chairman, Russ McDonald, said in an interview that he welcomed the hearing because it would give him an opportunity to detail the tribe’s progress in protecting children on the reservation.

“We’ve been building toward the goal of putting together a strong foundation to build on with regard to child protective services,” he said.

But other tribal members and some officials say that little has been done to improve protections for Spirit Lake’s children.

“I have heard from our present chairman along with other tribal and federal officials that changes are being made,” said Molly McDonald, a former tribal judge who plans to testify at the hearing. “However, I have not seen any action that reflects it.”

The problem has been highlighted by several high-profile child murder cases on the reservation. In 2011, a brother and sister, ages 6 and 9, were stabbed to death in the home where they had been sleeping. In 2013, a girl not yet three years old was thrown down an embankment by her step-grandmother, who tried to cover up the crime.

In April this year, an eight-month-old child was reported dead on the reservation. The FBI says it’s investigating the incident.

The hearing comes as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is considering a bill, co-sponsored by North Dakota’s two senators, John Hoeven (R) and Heidi Heitkamp (D), that would tighten protections for Native American children placed in foster homes, including mandated background checks for all adults in such homes.

Child abuse is hardly unique to Native American communities. But such crimes are more difficult to prevent and punish on reservations because of pervasive poverty, the government’s historical role in abusing Native Americans, and a patchwork of legal jurisdictions in Indian territory that often lets current victims fall through the cracks.

American Indian and Alaska Native children have the second-highest rate of victimization by race in the U.S., but only about 28 percent of those cases are ever prosecuted, according to federal data obtained by Syracuse University researchers.

At Spirit Lake, the problem of child abuse has been compounded by complacency in the tribal leadership and a lack of action by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the BIA’s own audits and interviews with people on and off the reservation.

“So Many Maladies…Result from the Failures of this Agency”

Despite being the agency responsible for assisting Native Americans, the BIA has long been at odds with the tribes, particularly when it comes to child welfare.

It forcibly removed Native American children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools, where they were banned from speaking their own languages or adhering to their customs. Some children were also physically, emotionally and sexually abused at the schools, helping to lay the groundwork for a cycle of abuse and trauma in Native American communities that continues today.

Nearly 200 years later, in 2000, Kevin Gover, then the BIA’s assistant secretary, apologized to tribal leaders for the agency’s actions and what he described as “ethnic cleansing.” “So many of the maladies suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency,” he said. “Poverty, ignorance, and disease have been the product of this agency’s work.”

But the apology hasn’t improved what’s now a “dysfunctional relationship” between the BIA and the tribes, who remain wary of federal intervention even as some continue to need help to rebuild their communities, said Sarah Deer, an associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, and an expert in tribal law.

“It’s a very difficult tap dance that the BIA does now,” she said. The agency must confront both “dysfunction in the agency and tribal communities, and be mindful of [tribal] boundaries. And those two things are nearly impossible to navigate.”

What Happened at Spirit Lake

Spirit Lake is a small reservation, with only 6,600 residents. It sits on a remote stretch of land in northeastern North Dakota, miles from much of any significance.

The child welfare program on the reservation has long had challenges, according to audits conducted by the BIA and released to FRONTLINE in response to a public-records request. The program, Tribal Social Services, is run by the tribe but receives federal funding and support.

In 1991, BIA auditors found several major problems with the program, including a failure to license foster homes or conduct background checks on the foster parents. Some of the children’s files even failed to note the homes in which they’d been placed.

Sixteen years later, little had changed, according to the next audit FRONTLINE obtained. The 2007 report noted that the tribe, desperate for more staff members to handle the case burden, was considering lowering its hiring standards, a move the auditor discouraged. “If he had more child-welfare workers, this would help them to not remove children from their families, if possible, and provide more preventive type of services,” the audit said. It was signed by Michael Black, then the BIA’s acting regional director. Black has since been promoted to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe didn’t get any more workers, and the cases kept piling up. Children’s files lacked any documentation to confirm their identities, a 2011 audit found. Birth certificates, social security cards, and even current photographs of the children were missing. No one visited the children in the foster homes, or even tracked the status of their parents or guardians.

By 2012, BIA auditors said the conditions at Spirit Lake posed an “imminent danger” to children in foster-care homes on the reservation and those referred to the tribe’s child-welfare agency.

In April that year, a whistleblower went public with allegations of corruption and “unchecked incompetence” that allowed children to be placed in homes with sexual predators and adults with substance abuse problems. The whistleblower, Michael Tilus, a federal employee who at the time worked as the director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, brought a sudden wave of scrutiny to the reservation.

The tribal leadership responded with promises that it was working “diligently” to prevent abuse, but complained that it faced funding and personnel deficiencies, among other problems.

By October, the tribe formally asked the BIA to take control of the program. It was a rare move for the agency to encroach on tribal sovereignty. Those who were in the meeting that day recalled that some tribal members were in tears.

The BIA has been reluctant to discuss its progress at Spirit Lake since then. Last February, under pressure from North Dakota’s congressional representatives, the BIA held a town-hall meeting on the reservation where it said it had hired two social workers and was having difficulty filling the other two places.

In a brief statement to FRONTLINE, Lawrence Roberts, the Interior Department’s principal deputy secretary for Indian Affairs, said, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs has made significant strides in children’s social services” at Spirit Lake. The statement pointed to its efforts in training people legally obligated to report child abuse incidents, improving background checks on officials who work with children, and rotating in new social workers to help with the caseload. (Read the full statement here.)

The BIA also said that because of privacy concerns, those who allege abuse aren’t always kept apprised of investigations, leading people to assume — inappropriately, the BIA said — that nothing has been done. 

What the Tribe Has Done

A few months after the town-hall meeting, amid complaints from residents that child-welfare services hadn’t improved, the reservation’s most senior federal official opted for early retirement, and the tribe had ousted its own leadership, installing Russ McDonald, the new chairman, who promised to break with the past.

Richard O’Keefe, who was hired as the new director of the tribe’s social services agency, told FRONTLINE at the time that he was focusing on increasing the agency’s funding and staff, and he was critical of the BIA’s practice of rotating in case workers as temporary employees.

But then in late February this year, O’Keefe abruptly handed in his resignation, saying it was only by chance that more children hadn’t been harmed.

“Nothing specifically has been done, that I believe, to prevent that from happening while I’ve been here,” O’Keefe told the local press. During his brief tenure, he said, neither he nor his BIA counterparts had been able to hire and retain qualified staff.

O’Keefe didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from FRONTLINE.

“It’s really hard to keep social workers out there with all the political fallout,” said Jennifer Cross, a former tribal judge who was removed by the tribal council earlier this year in a dispute over her rulings in neglect cases.

Cross said the existing social services staff did their best to place children in safe homes. But with only four overwhelmed foster homes on the reservation, they have few options. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” she said.

In an interview last week, McDonald, the new tribal chairman, said he was still trying to hire new case managers.  He said the interim director, who stepped in after O’Keefe, has little experience in social work, and while the tribe was able to hire a new judge to replace Cross, the reservation still has only half the law enforcement officers required to effectively police the area.

McDonald said he had asked several federal agencies and nonprofit groups to conduct audits of the tribe’s child-welfare system. He said the tribe is just now compiling that research, and aims to use the reports to draw up a new way forward.

“I’ve spent a lot of time as the chairman, not just trying to build something, but to take the time to plan and put something strong in place that’s going to last for awhile,” he said.

McDonald also noted that the tribe needs to strengthen its judicial and law enforcement branches in addition to the child-welfare program.

“We’ve been historically underfunded (by the federal government) for many years, and part of the reason for the situation that we’re in is due to that,” he said.

Deer, the tribal law expert, said that too many tribes shift the blame elsewhere. “I’m not satisfied when tribal leaders say we can’t do anything about it,” she said.

“Tribal nations also have the responsibility to respond to the crisis and the children who are being abused and murdered. I don’t think it’s enough… and it doesn’t make any sense why they would continue to get away with what they’re doing to children. I think everyone involved is somehow complicit.”

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