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US House panel explores Spirit Lake child abuse

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe told a congressional hearing that “nothing has changed and the problem remains” in filling vacancies to protect children on the reservation in eastern North Dakota.

Russ McDonald was among witnesses who testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, which includes Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Witnesses agreed that important collaborative steps have been taken, but the reservation has been plagued by a chronic inability to permanently fill important social services positions.

In written testimony, a high-ranking human services official said inadequate staffing means minimum standards are not being met in child protection and foster care case work.

That assessment was offered by Joo Yeun Chang, an associate commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, which funds child assistance and foster care programs.

McDonald said historic federal underfunding of social services and public safety programs have hindered the tribe’s ability to adequately address needs. The tribe, under a barrage of criticism, turned over most of its social services programs to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in October 2012.

“We need front-line workers right now,” McDonald said. As a result of staffing vacancies, “the workers we do have are overworked.”

Michael Black, BIA director, cataloged steps his agency has taken but acknowledged that efforts have been hampered by an inability to permanently fill six key human services positions. A supervisory social worker has been hired, however, and is due to start June 30, he said. Openings for two of three child welfare specialist vacancies are being advertised, Black said.

In the meantime, the BIA has been rotating in social workers from other reservations to run social services programs at Spirit Lake.

Black said the federal budget sequestration last year “inflicted additional challenges on Indian country,” though he added that funding later was restored, and the agency is proposing an increase of $11.6 million.

The sequestration budget cuts came as Spirit Lake turned over operation of its social services programs to the BIA, Black said.

McDonald said policing on the 250,000-acre reservation, with a population of about 5,000, should have 14 police officers. Instead, eight officers, enough for two officers per shift, patrol the reservation, a detriment to deterring crime, McDonald said.

Up until three months ago, only one patrol officer was available for each shift, he said.

The reservation also lacks enough foster homes to place children, with nine licensed foster care homes compared to a caseload of 31 children. Foster care caseloads also are higher than recommended levels because of the chronic staffing shortage, he said.

Mary McDonald, a former tribal judge on the Spirit Lake reservation, said problems of negligent police work persist, including a failure to investigate child abuse and sex abuse reports.

According to the tribe’s prosecutor, BIA officers failed to investigate three reported rape cases during a recent six-month period, she said.

“There’s no accountability in law enforcement as far as our officers on our reservation,” Molly McDonald added. “Nobody’s holding these officers accountable for their job.”

That remark prompted Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chaired the hearing, to say, “I think we ought to fire the whole bunch, move them out,” adding that it might restore public confidence.

Chairman McDonald said chronic police understaffing could result in “burnout” that might explain such failures. The McDonalds are siblings.

Chang credited the tribe with seeking outside help to correct the problems on the reservation, including assistance from the Casey Family Programs, which is advising the tribe, with the goal of someday resuming control of the reservation’s social services programs.

Cramer pressed Black for documentation of investigations into allegations of child abuse that the director characterized as “unsubstantiated,” and Black said he would provide that information.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to