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Citing child abuse concerns, administrator urges halting Spirit Lake's funding

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A federal human services administrator is urging sweeping steps to correct what he calls bureaucratic "inaction and excuses" in failing to protect endangered children at Spirit Lake Nation.

The regional federal administrator wrote state and federal officials, in a detailed June 14 email, that many children on the reservation in north central North Dakota are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse -- including the unprosecuted murder of two siblings more than a year ago.

Thomas Sullivan, Denver region administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, advocated declaring a state of emergency at Spirit Lake and suspending all state and federal funding to the tribe until qualified professionals can be put in place to run programs.

Sullivan's email letter was blunt in criticizing the tribe as well as state and federal officials in failing to adequately address what he called a "daunting problem."

"The children of the Spirit Lake Reservation are being subjected to actual abuse or the threat of such abuse due to the actions and inactions of adults who have responsibility to protect them from such abuse," Sullivan wrote.

He went on to list tribal officials, singling out Roger Yankton, the chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, as well as state and federal program leaders who have been notified of problems but allowed conditions to persist.

Call to action

Sullivan's letter, obtained by Forum Communications, is the latest call to action by a frustrated federal official in recent months warning of the dire threat to Spirit Lake children.

As administrator for the Administration for Children and Families in the six-state Denver region, which includes North Dakota, Sullivan has oversight responsibility for a broad range of human services programs.

Although assigning blame broadly, Sullivan was harshest in his condemnation of Spirit Lake Nation leaders for what he views as their callous failure to protect children.

"They have hung signs at the borders of the Spirit Lake Nation, 'Pedophiles Welcome.' They have made these signs operational by firing professional qualified staff, directing their replacements to ignore reports of abuse and neglect, refusing to prosecute the most egregious cases of abuse, even the murder of children, by demonizing those who speak out on behalf of these children and then claiming piously, 'Our children are sacred' while all look the other way . ..."

Sullivan went so far as to suggest that Yankton should be charged with felony child abuse and endangerment. "The existing record will provide more than adequate evidence to substantiate these charges and result in a conviction," Sullivan wrote.

Yankton, he claims in his letter, placed many children in danger by ordering them removed them from "loving, caring foster home placements" and returned to abusive homes.

"When placed back in these previously abusive homes, the abuse and neglect began again," Sullivan wrote.

Among other allegations cited by Sullivan:

• Children enrolled at the tribe's Head Start program were seen simulating a sex act on each other in the playground and classrooms.

"No one from Head Start or any other program has initiated an investigation to determine where these children learned this behavior," Sullivan wrote, wondering if the children might have been subjected to or observed such contact in their homes.

• A new hire in the tribe's social services program was sent to investigate a report that a toddler from an off-reservation foster home was returned to previously abusive and negligent parents.

"The toddler was publicly reported to have 'more than 100 wood ticks all over his body," adding that "all were dug in."

Quoting an unnamed informant, Sullivan wrote, "As gut-wrenching as this story is ... remember: This is not an isolated case of neglect. It is common out there and it is the LEAST of the neglect/abuse that goes on. It is the LEAST."

The new tribal social services staff member, after looking into the toddler's welfare, reported back that there was no problem except a "miscommunication" between the child's parents. The child was not taken to the clinic to have the wood ticks removed, according to Sullivan.

"At what point does such neglect become abuse?" he wrote.

• Sullivan repeated a report passed along earlier by Michael Tilus, a clinical psychologist for the Indian Health Service at Spirit Lake, of a suicidal girl who was allowed to be shuttled back and forth between homes with sex offenders. When informed of the girl's plight, the tribe's social services director purportedly did nothing.

• Credible reports have been made that the tribe's drug and alcohol screening program has been "fully compromised," subverting criminal background checks or ignoring results for those who are "politically connected."

"What is written here," Sullivan wrote, "is simply the tip of the iceberg."

Efforts to reach Yankton and tribal administrators, by phone and fax messages, were not successful Thursday, but Yankton has earlier cited staff turnover and inadequate federal funding for the tribe's problems.

In a "letter of grave concern" dated April 3, Tilus, cited "dozens of cases" where tribal social services officials failed to investigate child abuse and neglect reports over five years.

Tilus, who is the IHS behavioral health director in Fort Totten, complained of "unchecked incompetence" and "dangerous malpractice" of Spirit Lake social services.

As reported earlier by Forum Communications, Tilus advocated revamping the tribe's entire social services system, saying problems were too entrenched and systemic to solve by simply bring in a new acting tribal social services director.

In his letter, Sullivan refers to Tilus' allegations, and agrees the tribe's problems are booth rooted and systemic. Sullivan said Yankton and the Spirit Lake tribal council should be removed from office for cause if they are "unwilling to actively contribute to the effort" and replaced by enrolled tribal members.

Sullivan was not available for comment Thursday, and directed questions to a spokesman, who did not immediately return messages asking about official responses to Sullivan's allegations and recommendations.

North Dakota officials bristled at suggestions they have failed to act, and said they have taken action and continue to monitor 36 Spirit Lake foster children or children pending adoption.

Funding provided by the state for the children was suspended in February and will not be restored until the tribe demonstrates that it is in compliance with requirements.

"Where they have authority they're exercising that authority," said Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, referring to the North Dakota Department of Human Services. "Where they can act, they're acting."

Tara Muhlhauser, the state's director of children and family services, said she did not respond to Sullivan's letter because North Dakota Department of Human Services has limited jurisdiction and has acted where it can.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said he met with Spirit Lake officials in mid-February and believes they are moving to correct problems.

"I know there's been unrest there for some time," Davis said, adding that the state's jurisdiction is limited because of the tribe's sovereignty. He said his offers to provide more help to the tribe have not resulted in a request for follow-up from his office.

Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, a recipient of Sullivan's letter, said the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for social services programs, under contract with the Spirit Lake tribe. BIA officials did not immediately respond to an interview request from Forum Communications.

In an email response to Sullivan, Purdon referred to the "alleged double homicide" of a brother and sister, found dead May 21, 2011, whose rape and murders Sullivan highlighted in his letter, and said the FBI and BIA have an "active and ongoing investigation into these deaths."

In an interview with Forum Communications, Purdon said he is proud of his office's record in prosecuting violence as well as criminal child abuse and neglect at Spirit Lake and other reservations, and added of the murder case:

"This investigation is a priority for me and my office and it has been since the date of the incident."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

The Forum and the Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.