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What’s Changed Since the BIA Took Over at Spirit Lake?

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Coming April 1 and 2: FRONTLINE and Independent Lens present Kind Hearted Woman, the latest film from acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland (The Farmer’s Wife, Country Boys). The special two-part series illuminates the issue of child sexual abuse on Native American reservations as seen through the eyes of a young Oglala Sioux woman determined to forge a new and better life for herself and her two children.

It’s been nearly five months since the federal government took control of child services on a remote Native American reservation in North Dakota.

The unusual move came after years of allegations of child abuse and tribal mismanagement of social services, including children who were placed in homes with registered sex offenders, or returned to abusive or substance-addicted parents.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which works as a partner with tribes and oversees any federal funding, stepped in Oct. 1 at the Spirit Lake reservation in northeastern North Dakota after letters (pdf) from federal officials (pdf) detailing several cases of physical and sexual abuse of children in the tribe’s social services system were leaked earlier last year.

The BIA takeover means that the federal government is now directly responsible for administering Tribal Social Services, or TSS, on the Spirit Lake reservation. This gives BIA responsibility for ensuring that children who have been removed from their homes are placed in a safe environment and that allegations of abuse or other criminal violations are reported to law enforcement for proper follow-ups.

But nearly five months later, people familiar with events at Spirit Lake continue to report allegations of abuse that have gone uninvestigated and foster parents fighting to keep their children from being returned to their alleged abusers.

TSS “seem to have more interest, even after the BIA takeover, in protecting the interests of the addict and sexual predator with no interest in protecting the welfare of children,” wrote Thomas Sullivan, the regional administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, in a January report on abuses at Spirit Lake. Sullivan has been writing regular reports documenting abuse at Spirit Lake.

A History of Abuse

The Spirit Lake Nation resides on a desolate stretch of land in northeastern North Dakota, with two-lane roads that cut through swaths of barren land and lakes studded with protruding remains of drowned trees, flooded out long ago.

There are only about 6,600 residents in Spirit Lake, and many live on the reservation in trailers or other small homes. The casino is a major employer, as is the federal government. But there aren’t enough jobs to go around. People are close — nearly everyone is related to or at least familiar with everyone else who lives on the reservation.

Those ties also make people reluctant to speak out about the abuse that goes on, for fear that there will be retribution.

FRONTLINE visited Spirit Lake in November to find out how things had changed since the BIA takeover. But while residents insisted the problems continued, they were reluctant to offer specific details on the record. One tribal member told FRONTLINE that she feared her family’s home would be burned to the ground if she spoke out. Two others said that they had each been threatened with physical violence for raising concerns about children.

“These children are everything to us,” said one foster mother, who has taken in several children from the Spirit Lake tribe who came from abusive homes. “We’ve been so scared to speak up because we don’t want to lose them. They could take them away tomorrow just because I said a few things in the newspaper.”

Others were wary of speaking ill of their tribe to an outsider, not wanting to lend credence to ugly stereotypes about Native Americans that percolate among many non-Native residents of the small towns that border the reservation.

But even Spirit Lake’s defenders admit to the reservation’s many problems. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy and domestic violence are serious concerns, exacerbated by poverty and a housing shortage, which sometimes forces three or four families to cram into one home.

There are 41 registered sex offenders at Spirit Lake. In nearby Devil’s Lake, which lies just outside the reservation and has roughly the same population, there are 24.

Tribal elders have voiced concerns about sporadic abuse at Spirit Lake for decades. But the reports grew more serious during the past five or six years, residents say.

“No Corrections Made”

The BIA has known about problems at Spirit Lake TSS for at least two years, according to copies of the annual reviews the bureau conducts. But apart from repeatedly recommending corrective action, it appears that little was done.

In an August 2011 review, the BIA found that cases weren’t always properly documented, paperwork was missing and home visits to check on children weren’t always completed. In some cases, the BIA found that TSS didn’t assess whether parents or guardians could care for the child and often lacked court orders, which child protection workers must obtain before taking a child from a home.

The BIA also found that there had been “no corrections made to [the] previous quality assurance review,” which would have been conducted in 2010.

Many of the same problems were mentioned again in the BIA’s 2012 review, which was conducted a few months before it assumed control of social services.

But the BIA’s chain of command remains largely intact. The BIA superintendent on the reservation, Roderick Cavanaugh, who received each BIA annual review after it was completed, remains in his office in the Blue Building, tribe’s administration offices on the reservation.

The senior BIA criminal investigator at Spirit Lake remains responsible for investigating abuse allegations on the reservation. In August, his wife presented a hand-written letter to the tribal council, reporting two instances in which he abused her physically after she confronted him about an affair. [Update: The BIA didn't respond to an email seeking a comment about the allegations.]

Spirit Lake Council Chairman Roger Yankton didn’t respond to phone calls or to a message left at his office, and Cavanaugh referred all inquiries to the spokeswoman in D.C., Nedra Darling. She provided the following statement in response to several questions about developments at Spirit Lake:

The Bureau of Indian Affairs social services staff continues to prioritize and investigate allegations of child abuse and/or neglect. BIA remains committed to working with the Spirit Lake Tribe to provide for the safety and protection of the Spirit Lake children.

Darling said the BIA has hired two additional staff members at TSS, a child welfare specialist and a social service assistant, and plans to bring on two more child welfare specialists once they have cleared background checks. Other BIA staff from elsewhere in the country have been assigned to Spirit Lake on a temporary basis.

The BIA also said that it has invested in mobile fingerprinting units to conduct background checks on foster parents who care for Spirit Lake children and assembled a child protection team, comprised of doctors, clinical staff and others to support TSS.

The tribe has suspended the TSS director, Mark Little Owl, who was recently charged with domestic abuse.*

At the urging of North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, the BIA will hold a meeting with tribal officials at the Spirit Lake casino on Wednesday to further explain what changes it has made.

“We have pressed them not only to use every legal and administrative measure in their jurisdiction to ensure the safety of children on the Spirit Lake Reservation, but also to be transparent and forthcoming with tribal members about what they’re doing,” said a statement from Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, who also called for the meeting.

But the forum, billed as a “town hall,” may not be made public: the BIA told FRONTLINE that it’s up to the tribe to decide.

*[Editor's Note: The story initially noted that the BIA said that TSS Director Mark Little Owl had been removed from his post since he was charged with domestic abuse. But the tribe told members at a meeting on Feb. 27 that he had been suspended.]

A Broader Problem

Spirit Lake isn’t alone in its troubles. Overall, the violent crime rate in Indian country is more than 2.5 times the national rate, according to a 2011 report by the Departments of Justice and Interior, which share oversight of that territory.

According to federal statistics, American Indian or Alaska Native children have the second-highest rate of victimization, at 11 per 1,000 children, and the second-highest fatality rate. (African-American children are first). White children are abused at a rate of 7.8 per 1,000.

Native American children are abused at a higher rate in North Dakota than they are nationwide, at about 18 per 1,000.

Even these figures are likely underreported. A federal survey determined that the government receives only about 60 percent of the data on abuse and neglect of American Indian children.

Child abuse happens everywhere. But experts who work with abuse survivors on reservations say the problem on Native American reservations is different because it stems in part from a cycle of abuse that began decades ago. The federal government sent Native American children to boarding schools to force them to assimilate, and some were physically and sexually abused there. The shame and stigma that the victims experienced contributed to a cycle of abuse that continues today in many Native American communities.

“The play we’re seeing now is the result of the past two or three generations of powerlessness, violence, abuse, suffering, numbness,” said Diane Payne, director of the Justice for Native Children Project, an Alaska-based group that supports abuse victims and works with Native American communities on how to address the problem.

Justice for victims is also hampered in part because it’s sometimes unclear who is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes. Jurisdiction — whether it’s tribal, state or federal — depends on the crime, where it occurred, and whether the victim or perpetrator are Native American. Those rules can even differ from one reservation to another.

Often, allegations aren’t investigated at all. The lack of justice contributes to a sense of impunity for predators, some of whom are outsiders who seek out victims on remote reservations.

“There’s a pattern of people getting away with it, not being held accountable,” Payne said. “When someone’s had enough, it’s the person that makes the noise that gets in trouble.”

This display case in the Fort Totten, North Dakota Recreation Center shows sex offenders who live in the area. (AP Photo/The Forum, Michael Vosburg)
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