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Sen. Hoeven to meet with top Interior official on safety of children at Spirit Lake

FORT TOTTEN -- Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., will meet today with Kevin Washburn, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, to press for assurances that "children are being placed in safe homes" at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, a top aide said Wednesday.

Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven's chief of staff and point man on Indian affairs, said Hoeven had called for the meeting to ask whether necessary background checks had been done in the case of a 3-year-old girl who died last week on the reservation. He also wants assurances that "if there are other children in this house, that they be placed in safe homes."

The girl, who has not been identified by authorities, died June 13. The FBI and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs are investigating what the FBI has termed "a mysterious death."

Sources on the reservation say there is a twin sister and that her placement now is a matter before Spirit Lake Tribal Court. Chief Judge Shirley Cain did not respond Wednesday to inquiries about the twin's status.

Despite strong appeals Tuesday by Hoeven and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Justice Department officials declined again to provide any additional information on the girl's death.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said he has "been briefed on the ongoing investigation" and is "satisfied with the resources the FBI has been expending on this," but he would not comment on specifics of the investigation.

Purdon acknowledged the public concern and interest in the case but said he will not comment further now.

"What's most important to me is for the ongoing investigation to be protected so it's an appropriate and proper investigation," he said, "and that we are able to determine whether or not a crime was committed here, and, if there was, identify a suspect and make an arrest.

"The investigation will take as long as it takes, and the important thing is to get it right."

Taking the case 'extremely seriously'

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman in Washington, D.C., issued a brief statement in response to a query from the Grand Forks Herald.

"While it would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation, we are taking this matter extremely seriously," Hornbuckle said in an email.

"The protection of children is a top priority for the Justice Department," he said, "and we are doing everything possible to thoroughly investigate this matter."

According to information Heitkamp received earlier this week, the child had been in foster care but recently was returned to the care of a family member.

The Spirit Lake Nation has endured more than a year of intense scrutiny following allegations by former social workers, federal whistle-blowers and others about child abuse and failures in the tribe's child protection system.

There has been no announced finding of wrong-doing, arrests or identification of persons of interest in the latest death, or what steps may have been taken before or after the death. Heitkamp and Hoeven both said Tuesday that the turmoil of the past year demands quick and transparent action by authorities in this case.

Federal, state and tribal agencies and leaders "all have to take responsibility that a child died, once again, after we all said this couldn't happen again," Heitkamp said.