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Sen. Conrad: Spirit Lake 'a rudderless ship'

GRAND FORKS -- Saying that the Spirit Lake Nation "seems to be a rudderless ship" lacking the leadership necessary to deal with a crisis in child protection on the reservation, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he will call Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "and ask him to send in a team" to do what needs to be done.

Conrad said calls from his office to tribal leaders have gone unanswered, and a staff member returned from a meeting at Spirit Lake this week "visibly upset" by what she saw and heard there, including reports of people being placed in positions of responsibility and then summarily dismissed.

"This is not a signal to me that they are coping with this crisis in a way that's acceptable," Conrad said, clearly frustrated by tribal leaders' response to the situation.

"Kids are being mistreated there," he said. "I have to take that seriously."

Conrad, in Grand Forks Thursday for a series of public events, responded to questions about child protection at Spirit Lake at the start of a meeting with the Herald editorial board.

He said his office has been monitoring the situation since a federal whistle-blower, an Indian Health Service psychologist and others made allegations earlier this year about the physical and sexual abuse of children, jurisdictional confusion that hampered response and other problems at Spirit Lake.

His office has been working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a part of the Interior Department, which has social services responsibilities on the reservation. But "I think we have to go to the secretary of the interior directly and ask him to intervene" by sending in a team of specialists -- social workers, people with leadership backgrounds and possibly law enforcement personnel, Conrad said.

"We've talked to the BIA repeatedly," he said. "Do we go back to the BIA? I no longer feel that's sufficient."

Meanwhile, Ryan Bernstein, deputy chief of staff and legal counsel for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the senator's office has urged BIA officials to "strongly consider" taking over social services programs run by the Spirit Lake Tribe. Under agreements with the tribe, the BIA funds the programs.

"We definitely think BIA taking over the programs is an option that should be on the table," Bernstein said. "They need to look at that," considering the pros and cons.

If the BIA were to take over the programs, there is a process by which the tribe could seek to regain control, if it can demonstrate that it would be capable of doing so.

Conrad said he reviewed reports and met with staff members earlier this week about the situation at Spirit Lake, and the picture painted was of "an acute crisis" that hasn't been adequately addressed despite months of public outcry.

"What's most disturbing to me is that Spirit Lake seems to be a rudderless ship," Conrad said. "There is not a structure in place to deal with the crisis," and the reported dismissal of at least two people recently appointed to deal with problems "contributes to my view that this is a very troubling situation."

A staff member has made several visits to the reservation this summer "to participate in meetings and try to get something in place," he said, and he was struck by how "shaken" she was by her latest visit this week.

"We thought there were positive developments," he said. "I no longer feel this way. I want to see people put in there who are responsible for protecting these children."

Both Conrad and Hoeven sit on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and there had been suggestions in recent weeks that the committee hold public hearings on the Spirit Lake child protection issue sometime this fall.

"That's on the agenda, but right now we have more immediate needs," Conrad said Thursday. "I don't think we can wait for that."

'Special case'

Conrad, who is retiring from the Senate, said that "with good tribal leadership and the full-out support" of the state's congressional delegation, North Dakota tribes have made "dramatic progress" in improving educational opportunities, housing and other conditions on their reservations.

He cited the development of tribal colleges and other improvements at the Standing Rock, Three Affiliated Tribes and Turtle Mountain reservations. The Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt "is a beacon of hope in that community," he said. "You go to a graduation there and see the looks of pride on the faces."

But "probably the greatest frustration I have in my 26 years (in the Senate) has been trying to make progress" on chronic social issues, such as poverty, suicide, crime and the abuse of children, he said, a frustration focused now on Spirit Lake.

"There's a leadership failure there," Conrad said. "Spirit Lake is absolutely a special case. At least in other places there is progress, signs of improvement."

Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton, who has not been available for interviews since the child protection issue took center stage earlier this year, "is out of town and will be gone until next week," a spokeswoman said Thursday.