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Spirit Lake social services cut to the bone

FORT TOTTEN -- Social workers at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation have been furloughed because of the federal government shutdown, causing concern among tribal officials and a U.S. senator.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs took over social services from the tribe a year ago after the death of several children placed by tribal social workers in unsafe homes.

Tribal Chairman Leander "Russ" McDonald said Thursday that a skeleton crew of BIA employees is all that's left. "It's really affected the services for our population."

BIA offices were dark and vacant Thursday.

"There's still people on call. There's 24-hour service available in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs police department," the chairman said. "But there's not work, in relation to in-depth work, like placement of children through the court system is somewhat limited."

In Washington, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., expressed his concern to Kevin Washburn, the U.S. Department of the Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

"Federal agencies have the authority to employ non-excepted personnel for public safety and to protect life," Hoeven said in a letter to Washburn. "The protection of children in the care of the BIA is essential and should not be interrupted.

"I urge you to direct the BIA Social Service to ensure there is sufficient staff to address emergencies and to ensure that services necessary to protect children continue uninterrupted."

Hoeven is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has been involved in the Spirit Lake child welfare issue since spring 2012, when a BIA psychologist criticized the management of social services by the tribe.

Monte LaBeau, Spirit Lake's BIA superintendent, wouldn't comment Thursday on how many staff members are lost to the government shutdown or the overall effect it's having on Spirit Lake.

For McDonald, there's some comfort in knowing that it won't get much worse. BIA staff have been cut as much as they can be cut, he said. "I think that's about the minimum from what I understand."

The chairman said he hopes the shutdown ends quickly for Spirit Lake and for the rest of the nation. "These workers, all of them, not just ours on the reservation but across the nation, these workers are being affected individually."