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WDAY: The News Leader

Published June 22, 2012, 09:49 AM

Federal official wants Spirit Lake problems addressed

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal human services official is urging sweeping steps to address problems with social services and foster care administration that he says are endangering children on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal human services official is urging sweeping steps to address problems with social services and foster care administration that he says are endangering children on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator in Denver for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, advocates suspending all state and federal funding to the tribe until qualified professionals are put in place to run programs to ensure that children are not subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, The Forum newspaper reported (http://bit.ly/MzbeFi ). One instance Sullivan cites is the unprosecuted killing of two siblings about a year ago.

"The children of the Spirit Lake Reservation are being subjected to actual abuse or the threat of such abuse due to the actions and inactions of adults who have responsibility to protect them from such abuse," Sullivan wrote in a recent email to state and federal officials.

He said tribal leaders have failed by "firing professional, qualified staff, directing their replacements to ignore reports of abuse and neglect, refusing to prosecute the most egregious cases of abuse, even the murder of children, by demonizing those who speak out on behalf of these children and then claiming piously, 'Our children are sacred,' while all look the other way."

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton has cited staff turnover, high caseloads and inadequate federal funding for problems, and says the safety of children is a priority for the tribe.

State officials say they have limited jurisdiction but have acted where they can, including suspending some funding and monitoring 36 Spirit Lake foster children or children pending adoption.

"Where they have authority, they're exercising that authority," said Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, referring to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said he met with Spirit Lake officials in mid-February and believes they are moving to correct problems.

"I know there's been unrest there for some time," Davis said.

A state review team inspected the tribe's foster care case files in January after it became aware of deficiencies flagged in a yearly review of the tribe's social services programs by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said he is proud of his office's record in prosecuting violence as well as criminal child abuse and neglect at Spirit Lake and other reservations. He said the alleged homicide of the brother and sister who were found dead in May 2011 "is a priority for me and my office, and it has been since the date of the incident."

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