Staff turnover hurts BIA's efforts to protect children at Spirit Lake
FARGO - Turnover of staff to investigate suspected child abuse and neglect cases has hampered efforts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve child protection services on the Spirit Lake reservation.
The BIA assumed control of child protection services and certain foster care placements on Oct. 1, 2012, after complaints of systemic failures when the Spirit Lake tribe was running the programs.
A year later, tribal leaders and members credit BIA staff members with working hard to improve child protection, but visible progress has not yet been achieved, said Russ McDonald, who took over as chairman of the Spirit Lake Tribe on Sept. 10.
"It's broke and we need to get it fixed," he said of child protection services and placement of children into foster care. "We've been working hard to do that."
Nedra Darling, a BIA spokeswoman, acknowledged the bureau has had to rely on temporary social work staff at Spirit Lake.
"It's been difficult," she said. "It's an ongoing challenge for every agency in the region. We are continuing to work very hard to find social workers. We have good people there. The staff we are using are top of the field."
The tribe recently hired a new director of social services - the third person to hold that position in the past two years or so - as well as a new staff member to work in foster care placement, McDonald said.
Robert O'Keefe now heads the tribe's social service operations. O'Keefe is a licensed social worker who is working toward a master's degree.
His wife, also a licensed social worker with graduate-level experience, has been hired to help with the foster care caseload on an emergency basis until the position can be filled permanently, McDonald said.
With the tribe's consent, the BIA has taken the lead role in child protection and foster care placement, but the tribe retains that role in cases funded by the state.
Despite the BIA assistance, delays continue to occur when suspected child abuse or neglect reports are made, McDonald and other Spirit Lake Tribe members say.
"They're pretty much the same," said Sister Joanne Streifel, a retired social worker and tribal member who lives in Fort Totten.
Cases investigated by the BIA are handled properly, but staff shortages continue to plague the program, she said.
On the other hand, she added, foster care cases by the tribe sometimes have been mishandled, including the highly publicized death of a little girl last summer.
The girl was removed from what critics said was a safe foster home and placed in the home of her step-grandmother, who has pleaded guilty in the June death of Laurynn Whiteshield, who was 2 years and 11 months old.
Her step-grandmother, Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield, has admitted shoving the child down an embankment June 12. The child was placed in her home despite her criminal record, which includes half a dozen arrests involving child abuse, neglect, endangerment and abandonment, according to testimony in U.S. District Court.
Paul Hutchinson, the social worker who approved the placement, was later removed as the tribe's social services director. A tribal judge who approved the Whiteshield girl's placement on the advice of social services staff also was removed, and apologized for the decision.
Lolly Diaz, a former member of the Spirit Lake Tribe's social services board, said there is little evidence of improvement since the BIA took the lead on child protection and foster placement.
"Nothing has changed from putting it over to the BIA," Diaz said. "There really isn't any difference in my opinion.
"They're on a revolving door basis," she added, referring to BIA staff brought in to help. "We don't have anybody permanent here."
Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., both agree that the BIA has struggled because of the reliance on using staff who come in for temporary assignments, then rotate out.
Heitkamp also said the federal budget cuts imposed by the sequester and the recent government shutdown, which lasted 16 days, compounded the BIA's difficulties.
"No. 1 we need more law enforcement on the reservation," Heitkamp said. "We also need more child protection workers."
The problems involving child endangerment and frayed social services that have been in the spotlight at Spirit Lake for the past two years are common in Indian Country, Heitkamp said.
"It's not a problem that's unique to Spirit Lake," she said, adding as an example that a tribal court judge on the Fort Berthold Reservation has a backlog of 3,000 cases.
"We need to push the White House to allocate more resources either at Department of Justice or Bureau of Indian Affairs," Heitkamp added.
The BIA and North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission are working on a process to ensure that Spirit Lake is in step with BIA policies and procedures.
"I think we know what needs to be done," McDonald said. "When it comes right down to it, we need additional resources at the local level."
The tribal chairman credited the BIA's new acting superintendent at Spirit Lake, Monte LeBeau, with being engaged and helpful.
Hoeven said there is no timeline for the BIA to step back from helping the Spirit Lake Tribe with social services.
"They're working on it," he said. "I think they have more to do."
The bureau is now doing background checks on all people in a foster home household, not just the caregiver, Hoeven said.
Tim Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota whose office prosecutes major crimes on the state's reservations, credited his team with securing convictions in the two most significant criminal cases involving child victims at Spirit Lake.
One was Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield's guilty plea in the death of the young girl. The other was the conviction last month of Valentino Bagola for the 2011 murders of a brother and sister, Destiny Shaw and Travis DuBois Jr., whose deaths were held up as examples of the crisis at Spirit Lake.
"I think we have made progress and the proof is in the pudding," Purdon said. "I can't address whether those kids should have been in those homes."
A multidisciplinary team at Spirit Lake led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Morley meets regularly, and involves law enforcement, social services, child protective services and tribal court personnel, he said.
"By all reports, that is a more robust process over the last year," Purdon added.
But he conceded prosecutors by the nature of their role become involved on the "back end," after a child has become a victim of abuse, and something has gone wrong.