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Child Abuse Concerns Spur Federal Takeover at North Dakota Indian Reservation

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs said Monday that it will take control of social services on a North Dakota reservation, amid concerns from federal officials that the tribe’s mismanagement of the agency led to the abuse of children on the reservation.

The reservation, home to the Spirit Lake tribe, a group of roughly 6,600 people living in a remote area of the northern United States, has been under scrutiny since August 2011, when federal officials from the bureau began working with tribal authorities to improve child safety after the local BIA office reported “serious deficiencies” at the agency.

The tribe requested federal intervention last week, the BIA said in a statement (pdf) announcing the move on Monday. Tribal officials told the BIA that the move would be in the “best interest of the Tribe, its children, and its families.”

[Update 3/5/2013: Read the Tribal Council's letter to tribal members on the takeover, a press release from the Council, and its formal request for retrocession here.]

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has oversight of some federal funding given to the reservations nationwide, had established a corrective action plan for the tribe in April to improve its social services program. It sent in what it called a “strike team” of federal officials on Aug. 26 to meet with tribal authorities to discuss the tribe’s progress in following the plan, which included supervisory social workers who assessed how Spirit Lake’s Tribal Social Services (TSS) conducted home visits and child protection referrals, as well as its documentation procedure.

The federal control means that the government will now administer social services on the reservation, until the tribe can show that it is able to reassume control.

The decision, made over the weekend, offers a window into the patchwork of federal, state and tribal jurisdictions that oversee social and legal matters on Native American reservations. Tribes have jurisdiction over family law, for example, but the federal government has primary authority to investigate and prosecute violent crimes, including sex crimes. Jurisdiction can, however, overlap with  tribal authorities, depending on whether the perpetrator and victim are members of a tribe, and whether the crime occurred on or off a reservation.

Rape and child sex abuse cases in Indian country are rarely prosecuted, according to tribal advocates. It’s up to the FBI to determine whether it will pursue a case. The bureau doesn’t publish data on how often it declines a case, though it will be required to do so by law beginning next year. However, a Syracuse University study of data from 2004 to 2007 found that the federal government declined to prosecute 50 percent of murder or manslaughter cases in Indian country, 76.5 percent of adult sex crime cases and 72 percent of child sex crime cases. Federal officials have argued this is because evidence is difficult to come by, and the cases aren’t always clear-cut.

Since 2008, FRONTLINE producer David Sutherland has followed a member of the Spirit Lake nation, Robin Charboneau, as she tried to protect her daughter from abuse. He tells her story in the film Kind-Hearted Womanyou can see a preview above.

But the problem at Spirit Lake extends far beyond one woman’s story. In an April assessment obtained by FRONTLINE, the BIA found “high-risk findings” that “pose an imminent danger to the health, safety and well-being of children either in placement or referred for protective services.” Federal officials, former tribal employees and other members of the Spirit Lake nation have said in interviews that in subsequent months, the system has continued to leave children at risk.

Roger Yankton, the elected tribal chairman at Spirit Lake, didn’t respond to two phone calls and an e-mail seeking a comment on Monday. In a written statement to a local paper earlier this year, he said the tribe had worked “diligently” to prevent child abuse. “Compounding issues of system-wide response are legal and jurisdictional complexities, severe funding and personnel deficiencies and difficulties in securing and retaining the services of qualified and well-trained personnel to name a few,” he wrote.

What Happened at Spirit Lake

The abuse allegations gained national attention in April after a letter from Michael Tilus, who at the time worked as the director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center was leaked to media outlets. He wrote what he called a “letter of grave concern” [pdf] to federal, state and local officials about the safety of children on the reservation, which was then leaked online. Tilus argued that despite BIA attention to the problem since August 2011, no major progress had been made.

The allegations centered around TSS, a tiny agency charged with the welfare of children enrolled in the tribe. The office is required to investigate allegations of abuse, remove children from a home where abuse is suspected, and place the children with a safe relative or in a foster home until the child’s first home is deemed safe.

It’s set up and run by the tribe, with the help of state and federal dollars, and reports to the tribal council. The tribe acknowledges the office is understaffed, and former employees say a typical caseload is about 150 cases, compared to the standard 15-20 for a social worker off the reservation.

Proper documentation on child cases was often lacking, according to the BIA’s April assessment obtained by FRONTLINE. According to its review, TSS workers had failed to properly document removing the children from their homes, or document that their new placement homes met minimum safety standards. They also didn’t provide documentation to show that federal background checks had been done on people in the homes, nor had the children’s guardians been properly evaluated.

In his report, Tilus said that TSS had demonstrated “unchecked incompetence” that endangered children on the reservation. Tilus was employed by the federal government through his work at the Spirit Lake Health Center, and his office worked closely with TSS officials.

Among other charges, Tilus said that the TSS often failed to keep proper records of abuse allegations and removed children from homes without legal authority. “TSS staff misrepresented themselves in court, lied about fact-finding, and had serious boundary violations in their professional work,” he said in his letter.

Molly McDonald, an associate juvenile judge hired by the tribe in February 2010, told FRONTLINE that about half of the cases she heard involved allegations of child abuse, in which the children had been removed from their homes.

But when TSS staff members showed up in court for a hearing on where to place the children, the social workers tended to lack proper documentation or didn’t always have all the facts about the case, McDonald said. McDonald said that  TSS workers often had no information on whether the parents had been getting necessary help, such as anger management classes or drug and alcohol treatment.

The workers often couldn’t say whether they had followed up on the case to ensure the child was safe in their new placement, according to McDonald. Sometimes, the workers would recommend placing children in homes without vetting the people who lived there — on occasion, she said, these were homes where registered sex offenders lived or visited.

McDonald said her supervisor, the lead judge, complained to the tribal council on her behalf, but no action was taken. McDonald and the supervisor, who didn’t return phone calls, were both later fired without explanation. “I pushed too hard,” McDonald said. “I was wanting answers, and that rubbed people the wrong way.”

TSS also hired a caseworker who had pled guilty to a felony charge of “abuse or neglect of a child” in a state court several years earlier. This worker remained on staff even after her plea was reported to the TSS director, according to Betty Jo Krenz, a caseworker for a year and a half with TSS. Krenz was fired by the tribal council, she says, because she complained about the agency’s procedures.

Tilus, the initial whistleblower, received a formal reprimand from his supervisor at Spirit Lake for not following the proper chain of command with his report. That punishment was subsequently rescinded by the Department of Health and Human Services in August.

In the meantime, others were expressing concerns about what was happening at Spirit Lake. In June, Thomas Sullivan, the regional administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, wrote a letter of his own. Sullivan has oversight of human services programs in six states, including North Dakota, and describes himself in his biography on the D.H.H.S. website as having worked throughout his career to prevent child abuse.

In his letter, sent to his superiors, Sullivan said that he suspected that “many children” at Spirit Lake “have been abused and are at continuing risk of further abuse.” He blamed the tribal authorities and federal and state officials for not taking action.

Sullivan specifically blamed the tribal chairman, Roger Yankton, who was elected in May 2011, alleging that under his leadership, children were removed from safe foster homes off the reservation and returned to their families. “When placed back in these previously abusive homes, the abuse and neglect began again,” Sullivan wrote.

In his letter (pdf), Sullivan charged that the tribal leadership also fired TSS staffers who were not enrolled members of the tribe and hired new staff members who were members of the tribe but weren’t qualified to perform social services.

In August, the tribal council defended its efforts to reform the social services system in an editorial [pdf] published in the local Devil’s Lake Journal, under the name of the “Spirit Lake Tribe.” While the authors declined to address allegations about specific cases due to confidentiality concerns, they noted a series of reforms the tribal council, under Yankton’s leadership, had put in place to address problems with social services.

The tribe also said that Sullivan and Tilus had ignored its efforts at reform.

In recent months, the tribe lost state funding it receives to pay families that provide foster care for children enrolled in the tribe. The state found that 31 cases were “out of compliance,” meaning that they weren’t properly documented, according to Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, a state agency that coordinates state and tribal affairs. After the tribe showed Davis and other officials that it was taking steps to improve the process, the funding was reinstated in July, Davis said in an interview last month. “We get pressured that we should be doing more,” he said then. “Legally we can’t. That’s just the way it is.”

On July 18, federal and regional representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs met with Spirit Lake tribal leadership to discuss other problems with social services.

In its August editorial, the tribal council said that it was “well aware of the gravity and difficult nature of these problems,” but added that the tribe has struggled with “substantial funding and other resource deficiencies,” and multiple floods in the past 18 years that had complicated efforts to provide social services.

The tribe also noted that it had reorganized Tribal Social Services according to the action plan from the BIA, and conducted a comprehensive review of its procedures, cases and records. It also hired a new TSS director, and a child protection services supervisor who was to begin work last month. For the first time, the tribe hired a judge with a J.D. to sit on its tribal court.

“By these actions, the current tribal government has demonstrated a sincere commitment to confronting these issues faced by the Spirit Lake people and improving services and operations,” the editorial said. “Far from a cover-up, the Tribe has been actively working to reform the Department.”

But in a follow-up report to federal officials on Aug. 14 that was obtained by FRONTLINE, Sullivan said that little had changed. He wrote: “Everything else appears to remain as it was or has become even worse for the children of Spirit Lake.”

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