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Federal Officials Outline Efforts to Combat Abuse on N.D. Reservation

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs detailed for the first time on Wednesday what it has done to address multiple reports of child abuse on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota.

This tiny reservation has been beset by allegations of child abuse and neglect for years. At the center of the problem has been the tribe’s own social services department, or TSS, which has been responsible for child welfare on the reservation. Federal officials and residents say that TSS has failed to remove children from abusive homes, or placed them in homes with registered sex offenders. The problems came to light after two federal officials‘ reports (pdfs) were leaked to the public last year.

Compounding the problem, these reports said, was that abuse allegations at Spirit Lake were rarely investigated by the tribe or the federal government — generally responsible for prosecuting felonies on reservations — which contributed to a sense of impunity for perpetrators.

The situation at Spirit Lake was so bad that last October, the BIA took over Tribal Social Services, making the federal government directly responsible for child welfare on the reservation. But since the takeover, as we’ve reported, it’s been difficult to determine what’s changed. Residents have told FRONTLINE they are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, and the BIA has been reluctant to detail any improvements.

On Wednesday, after pressure from North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, the BIA held what they billed as a town-hall meeting at the Spirit Lake casino on the reservation. It was attended by the Tribal Council, which governs the tribe, top BIA officials, the US district attorney, and other state government officials.

In its testimony, BIA officials told gathered community members that it is currently reviewing 300 allegations of child abuse or neglect, and that it has 129 children in its social-services system.

BIA officials said they’ve hired two social-services workers, and want to hire four more. Tribal officials have said it’s difficult to recruit and retain qualified employees on this far-flung reservation, where the caseload in the past has been as many as 150 per person, according to former employees, when the average social worker typically handles 15-20. In the meantime, BIA officials said that 19 social workers from other BIA agencies are being rotated through Spirit Lake to help with the caseload.

Mark Little Owl, the director of Tribal Social Services, who the tribe hired last summer to handle social services, was also at the meeting, drawing the ire of tribal members.

He is currently facing assault charges for domestic abuse in an indicent that happened shortly after he was hired, in August 2012. (He has pled not guilty.) The tribe said on Wednesday he has been suspended.

Several residents came forward to detail their own cases of abuse, and to accuse the BIA and US attorney of not doing enough to investigate the allegations.

One woman who spoke was Robin Charboneau, a Spirit Lake tribal member who is featured in an upcoming FRONTLINE film, Kind Hearted Woman, that is in part about her efforts to protect her daughter from the girl’s abusive father. 

“This is why our people don’t get up and speak, because when they do, people are trying to shush them. That or they’re being threatened,” Charboneau said she told the gathering.

One man described how his 14-year-old daughter had taken her own life after trying to report abuse she had witnessed. The girl had been bullied and harassed repeatedly by the perpetrator’s relatives. Before she died, her father said, the girl said she wished she’d never spoken out.

Another woman said that the man who had repeatedly beaten her 2-year-old child had not been prosecuted.

Several of the cases had occurred before the BIA stepped in. But one school principal in the nearby town of Devil’s Lake said that he still had trouble getting cooperation from Spirit Lake social services to help children from the tribe who attend his school.

The US attorney in Fargo, Tim Purdon, said in a statement after the meeting that allegations of crimes against children are a “priority” for federal authorities. Purdon met privately with several tribal members after the meeting about their cases. He also encouraged people to continue reporting abuse not just to the BIA, but to his office.

“It was a good first step,” said Ryan Nagle, a staff member for Sen. Heitkamp who attended the meeting. But, he added: “A number of folks in the audience made clear the time for talk is over, and it’s time for action.”

The Spirit Lake reservation. (FRONTLINE)
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