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Spirit Lake reservation still working to fill four social worker positions

The Blue Building houses tribal offices for the Spirit Lake Nation as seen on Tuesday in Fort Totten, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO – The Spirit Lake social service program still has vacancies for social workers filled by personnel brought in to serve temporary stints.

Social service programs at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation were taken over by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Oct. 1, 2012, but the agency has yet to fill four social work slots, said Russell McDonald, the tribe’s chairman.

“We have social workers coming in from other reservations,” staying for one-month rotations, he said.

Because of the revolving social work staff, the social workers and community don’t have lasting contacts that provide for mutual trust and continuity of services, McDonald said.

“So that rapport and trust that’s important is not there,” he added.

To try to fill the positions, the Spirit Lake Tribal Council recently waived the BIA’s American Indian hiring preference, McDonald said.

The openings have not drawn qualified applicants, but the tribe hopes that lifting the American Indian preference will attract a bigger pool of applicants, he said.

Spirit Lake has been working to correct deficiencies in its child protection services and foster care programs. Before the BIA assumed control of those programs, children from the reservation were placed in unsafe homes, including some with known child molesters.

McDonald testified at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., called the Native American Children’s Safety Act.

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., includes a provision that would require all prospective foster care parents and adults living in the home to undergo a background check before an American Indian child is placed in the home.

Similarly, it would require a background check for any adult who moves into a foster home, with checks to include criminal activity as well as registries for child abuse and neglect.

The bill also would require foster homes to undergo periodic recertification.

A single database for background checks would simplify the process, McDonald said. Separate databases are kept by the federal government, the states and tribes, he said.

Heitkamp also has a bill aimed at addressing challenges facing American Indian children. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who once served as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, testified last week in support of the bill, which has BIA support.

The bill would establish a Commission on Native American Children that would conduct intensive study of issues confronting American Indian children, including high rates of poverty and unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence and crime.

Despite the hiring gap, McDonald said the tribe is making progress in improving its policies and procedures with help from organizations, including staff from the Center for Native American Youth, which Dorgan founded.

The BIA’s Office of Justice Services is helping the tribe improve its tribal court system, and the Administration for Native Americans under the Department of Human Services also is helping.

“We have some heavy hitters that are coming to our aid,” McDonald said. With help from outside experts, he is optimistic the tribe will be able to build a “foundation” to make the reservation safer for children.

“I think that’s the positive side of this,” he said.

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