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Published August 28, 2012, 09:57 AM

Spirit Lake social services probe to continue

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. (AP) — Federal officials will decide whether to take over control of social services program at North Dakota's Spirit Lake reservation after a visit next month to check on progress in the tribe's child protection programs.

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. (AP) — Federal officials will decide whether to take over control of social services program at North Dakota's Spirit Lake reservation after a visit next month to check on progress in the tribe's child protection programs.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven, a member of the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, also plans to travel to the reservation next week to get a firsthand look at the situation.

"This has got to get fixed, and you've got to have some hard timelines for getting it fixed," Hoeven told Forum Communications Monday, the same day Interior Department officials traveled to the reservation to meet with tribal officials.

The meeting, which included Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Michael Black, was closed to the public. It came at the urging of Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, who last week called Spirit Lake a "rudderless ship" where children were suffering because of a lack of leadership.

The tribe has been criticized for alleged lapses in protecting endangered children. Federal officials have accused tribal officials of repeatedly ignoring reports of child abuse and neglect. Complaints have come from Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, and Michael Tilus, a former behavioral health director at the Indian Health Service clinic in Fort Totten.

Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton says most problems predate his administration. He said he told the federal officials Monday that "we didn't put up any sign at the reservation border saying, 'welcome pedophiles.' I asked them if they saw it, and they said no, they only saw welcome signs."

Black said he did not know if "crisis" was the right word to describe Spirit Lake's situation but said "there are issues here that need to be resolved and corrected."

Yankton said tribal officials are working to correct problems, including hiring a new social services director. Mark Little Owl, who holds a master's degree in social work, previously worked at a health center on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.

Little Owl said the Bureau of Indian Affairs has provided some social workers who have helped with training and home visitation during the last couple of weeks but that he needs more "to get out there and make a difference."

The Interior Department also is working with the Indian Health Service to develop a tracking and coding system for reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, and helping with training for people mandated by law to make abuse reports.

"The priority for all of us is the children," Little Owl said.

Some tribal members including Oralia Diaz say they support Yankton's administration, but others say new leaders are needed.

"We need a new tribal council, a new chairman, and a new superintendent," Cheryl Good Iron said.

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