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Head of Spirit Lake social services staff resigns: Official says recruitment to reservation is impossible

FORT TOTTEN — The head of the Spirit Lake Nation’s embattled social services program has resigned after just six months on the job.

Robert O’Keefe said it’s been next to impossible to recruit social workers to the reservation south of Devils Lake.

“I came out here to kind of catch up the social services, clean up some of the areas that hadn’t been taken care of so well, and found out that staff is kind of the No. 1 problem,” he said Friday.

O’Keefe is the third director of social services to have left the job in the past year.

The tribe needs three case workers, but his wife was the only one. She also quit Friday.

Public scrutiny the tribe has faced after the death of several children is a big reason why social workers aren’t showing interest, O’Keefe said. “You don’t want some little mistake to be caught, and when that happens then the council also gets a little bit concerned.”

In May 2011, Destiny DuBois-Shaw, 9, and her brother, Travis DuBois Jr., 6, were murdered at their home in St. Michael. Their killer, Valentino Bagola, is appealing his life sentence.

Last June, Laurynn Whiteshield, 2, died after her step-grandmother threw her down an embankment near their home in St. Michael. Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield has been sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Both cases drew national attention to the Spirit Lake tribe’s broken child-protection system.

There hasn’t been a tragedy like the deaths of the DuBois siblings or Laurynn Whiteshield since O’Keefe took over, but he said that’s more luck than anything else.

“Nothing specifically has been done, that I believe, to prevent that from happening while I’ve been here,” he said. His skeleton crew can only do the bare minimum, he said.

“The problem is if you only have case management that’s only capable of making sure that the kids are safe and they’re still alive,” he said.

But there aren’t enough staff members to focus on keep children from being abused, he said. “It’s building relationships. It’s educating parents. We want to do some preventative work, try to prevent the children from being removed from their homes.”

It likely won’t be any easier for the next social services director, he said.

Spirit Lake victim’s assistance director Melissa Merrick will take over social services on an interim basis.

Tribal Chairman Russ McDonald said the tribe is working to bring in more social workers to address the shortage.