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New Details Emerge in Hearing on Abuse at Spirit Lake

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For two decades, federal officials noted glaring problems with the child-welfare program on a remote Native American reservation in North Dakota and took no action.

And according to a new federal assessment, detailed yesterday before a congressional subcommittee, many of the same problems persist today, almost two years since the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs took control of the program and responsibility for most of the children in Spirit Lake’s child-welfare system.

“Since the BIA took over, nothing has changed, and the problems still remain,” Russ McDonald, the tribe’s elected chairman told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. “We have experienced tragic child losses and continue to struggle to meet the child protection needs of our community.” (Video of the hearing and witness’s official testimony can be found here.)

Today, the BIA said it receives between 50 and 80 potential cases of abuse or neglect each month — for a population of about 7,000 tribal members.

According to yesterday’s testimony, there appear to be few immediate solutions. The hearing, called by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) to shed light on the problem of child abuse and neglect at Spirit Lake, exposed a fundamental problem in Indian Country. Tribes rely primarily on federal funding for basic services like health care and education, as part of agreements their predecessors signed with the federal government in exchange for ceding their land and settling on designated reservations. But those federal dollars are in short supply.

The Cost of Child Safety           

McDonald, who has been the tribal chairman for the past eight months, said that the tribe’s vital services — law enforcement, the tribal court and social services system — have historically been underfunded by about 60 percent by the federal government.

Among the problems:

  • The tribe needs about four social workers to handle the current caseload of child-welfare cases. It has funding for two, but both positions have been open for the last eight months and they haven’t been to fill them.
  • The tribe needs 14 police officers to patrol the reservation. It currently has eight officers who work two to a shift.
  • The tribe now has nine licensed foster-care homes for the entire reservation, where at least 100 children are currently in the system.

McDonald told the subcommittee he has asked federal agencies to help audit the programs and make recommendations for how to improve. He’s also asked for emergency staffers to fill the positions until they can hire full-time employees, he said.

But any more funding would have to be appropriated by Congress. The BIA currently receives about $115 million for child welfare and other human services programs, and another $300 million for public safety on reservations nationwide. The proposed 2015 budget would add an additional $34 million to bolster family services programs, public safety and other needs on tribal lands.

The BIA’s total $2.5 billion budget is already stretched thin, according to Michael Black, the director. “Honestly, I don’t think that we have the resources that are really necessary, not only at Spirit Lake, but across the country,” he said.

At Spirit Lake, Black said the bureau has been pulling in social workers from other reservations in three-month rotations, because qualified staff members are so difficult to recruit and retain.

“We Have a Plan… Now We Need the Means”

On the reservation, the tribe’s child-welfare agency still lacks protocols for investigating abuse allegations or placing a child in a foster home, and little paperwork on any of the child cases, according to JooYeun Chang, a representative from the federal health and human services’ Administration for Children and Families, who recently visited the reservation. Many of the licensed foster homes lacked documentation to prove that the proper background checks and home studies had been done, she said.

Such problems — which have been reported by BIA auditors since at least 1991, according to documents released to FRONTLINE under the Freedom of Information Act — contributed to the entrenched problem of neglect and abuse of children on the reservation that ultimately left children in homes with registered sex offenders or those with substance abuse problems, and in a few cases, even dead.

Chang noted that for the children the BIA oversees — about two-thirds of the children in Spirit Lake’s system — some of these problems have been addressed. But she said the BIA and the tribe need to develop some joint policies and procedures to maintain a basic standard of care.

McDonald was elected chairman of the Spirit Lake tribal council eight months ago after tribe members voted to oust the previous leadership in part because of concerns about the welfare of children on the reservation. He said has spent his tenure working with federal agencies to assess how best to remedy these problems, adding that the tribe needs more help.

“We are not the same reservation that we were in 2012,” he said. “We have a plan. Now we need the means to make it happen.”

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