LAWRENCE ROBERTS AND TIMOTHY PURDON: BIA, U.S. attorney cite progress at Spirit Lake
BISMARCK -- A week ago, we held a public meeting with the Spirit Lake community to share the progress being made since the transfer of the social services program to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to underscore our collective commitment to work...
BISMARCK -- A week ago, we held a public meeting with the Spirit Lake community to share the progress being made since the transfer of the social services program to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to underscore our collective commitment to working with the tribe and the community to improve and strengthen child safety.
As federal officials with responsibility for protecting children on the reservation and, where appropriate, prosecuting crimes against children, we take the concerns of the community extremely seriously.
We were joined at the public forum by many federal and state representatives who have a shared interest in the well-being of Spirit Lake's children. We heard voices of support, concern, frustration, hope and commitment to be part of a collective solution.
Community and tribal support is essential to our continued progress, for it is the people of Spirit Lake who best know their children and the best paths forward to safeguarding their future.
Over the past few months, the BIA has hit the ground running by establishing a social services office, working to bring current all active case management records and collaborating with the Spirit Lake Tribal Court to establish care and control measures to make sure child placements are appropriate.
A 24-7 on-call child protective service hotline has been established in coordination with the BIA Office of Justice Services. Mobile fingerprinting units are being used to more efficiently complete the background investigation of those homes where children, under care, may be placed.
Our social services staff is working with the tribe and many partners to provide community outreach training over the next few months for both children and community members.
During our public meeting, we heard from many that continuity of the social services staff is important. We agree. The BIA currently has two permanent staff and a number of temporary staff. We hope to bring on two additional permanent staff in April, and we will be re-advertising two additional child welfare specialist positions that we hope to fill in the near future.
In the meantime, we will be looking at ways to maximize continuity until permanent staff is hired.
We also heard concerns that crimes against children are going uninvestigated on the reservation.
Such a serious concern deserves a direct response. The fact is, all of the allegations that have been raised recently about crimes against children at Spirit Lake have been turned over to FBI and BIA law enforcement, and they have been investigated. Some of the allegations have been substantiated and have resulted in ongoing criminal investigations. Others have turned out to be either based on false information or unable to be substantiated.
Residents of Spirit Lake who are concerned about the safety of children on the reservation should know this: The most important thing they can do to help us in our efforts to protect children is to immediately report any criminal activity they witness directly to law enforcement.
These first-hand reports can help us build criminal cases against those who offend against children.
But, it's also important for the public to understand that allegation of a crime must be substantiated through investigation before proof can be established in a court of law. The privacy and protection of victims, especially children, and the rights of defendants to a fair trial demand careful and deliberate investigation of facts by the FBI and BIA.
The commitment of the U.S. attorney's office to safer tribal communities is nothing new. More than two years ago, we initiated an anti-violence strategy for tribal communities aimed at improving public safety on all the reservations in North Dakota. Some of these efforts have focused on Spirit Lake, including a pediatrician-led training for tribal first responders on recognizing the signs of child abuse, and the institution of multi-disciplinary team meetings on the reservation led by the U.S. attorney's office. The meetings bring together law enforcement and child protective services to address issues facing child victims of violence.
As a result of these and other stepped-up efforts, we have seen an increase of more than 80 percent in the number of reservation criminal cases brought by federal prosecutors in North Dakota since 2009.
These are results we are proud of and show our commitment to fighting violent crime on the reservations in North Dakota.
Last week at Spirit Lake, we again heard the call from the community for positive change. In the coming months, we will continue to work to respond to this call.
While we have made strides over the past few months, we still have much to do. As we move forward, we will continue the dialogue with the Spirit Lake community, as their support is essential to our progress.
Roberts is deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Purdon is U.S. attorney for North Dakota.