Hoeven urges tribal leaders to act fastSen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., huddled here Friday with Spirit Lake tribal leaders and urged them to act fast and openly to resolve deficiencies in the tribe’s social services program, under fire recently for allegedly leaving children at risk.
By: By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
SPIRIT LAKE NATION — Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., huddled here Friday with Spirit Lake tribal leaders and urged them to act fast and openly to resolve deficiencies in the tribe’s social services program, under fire recently for allegedly leaving children at risk.
The alternative to quick and effective upgrading of the reservation’s child protection system is a resumption of Bureau of Indian Affairs responsibility for the program, Hoeven said.
“We have to make sure the children are being taken care of and are safe,” he said at the outset of a 90-minute meeting with tribal leaders, representatives of the BIA and others.
“It has to be an open and transparent process,” Hoeven told them. “It is incumbent on the tribe to get that done, and you have to get it done now,” or state and federal agencies will have to step in.
A BIA review team will return to the reservation next week to assess progress the tribe has made on a corrective action plan developed in November and expanded in April. In a meeting late last month with BIA Director Michael Black, Hoeven said “hard deadlines are needed,” a message he repeated several times in his meeting with Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton and others.
Yankton thanked Hoeven for offering to help find solutions to a difficult situation that has been complicated by inadequate staffing and funding.
“This issue is only part of our larger social dilemma,” Yankton said, referring to a critical shortage of good housing, the financial and emotional strain of a 15-year fight with the rising waters of Devils Lake and other challenges.
“It’s good you’re here,” he told the senator.
Checklist for tribe
Hoeven outlined several key signs of progress he wants to see, touching on issues raised in the earlier BIA reviews and by individual tribe members:
* “Children have to have a (court) hearing before they’re placed in a foster home,” he said.
* Once the determination is made to place a child in a foster home, a background check on the foster family must be done — and done in a timely manner.
*Whether on the reservation or through cooperative agreements with neighboring counties, enough qualified foster homes need to be available to accommodate all placements.
* With regard to all the fixes and improvements the tribe has made or is contemplating, “Is there proper reporting so you know it’s being done?”
Hoeven said the BIA and state social services people “need an ongoing presence here to make sure it’s being done, so people know it’s being done.”
He also told the tribal leaders, who included several Tribal Council members, that there “has to be continuity” in leadership positions, so that “when you get the people you need and the systems in place, people will know it’s continuing.”
Hoeven pressed that point with Mark Little Owl, hired a month ago as director of Tribal Social Services and the tribe’s new point man in dealing with the child protection issue.
“You’re in place, permanent?” Hoeven asked Little Owl. “You feel you have the autonomy you need?”
Little Owl responded that he has signed a four-year contract with the tribe, has hired three new professional social workers, and developed new procedures to guide them and other child welfare professionals.
“No children are in danger” today, he told the senator.
Little Owl said his office will soon hire foster care specialists and support staff, including people who will always answer the office phone, one of the criticisms offered by the BIA. The professional staff, including social workers coming from other reservations, all have master’s degrees or soon will have, he said.
Communication with tribal police, tribal courts and other agencies has improved, and the office completed all required home visits in August.
“I couldn’t say most of these things a month ago,” Little Owl said.
He admitted the reservation is short of qualified foster homes — just 10 now, all of which have gone through background checks — but is getting some help from Benson and neighboring counties.
The tribe also relies on “relative care,” placing children with an aunt or a grandmother.
Some previous foster care providers dropped out, Little Owl said, in part because tribal payments for their services weren’t made in a timely way. “We’re going to implement some incentives and hire someone for recruiting.”
Hoeven said he had talked with FBI officials about helping over-stretched tribal police with background checks, at least in the short term.
“You’ve got to have a safe place to put (the children) now,” he said.
To get at the problems earlier, Tribal Judge Shirley Cain urged development of “a good, old-fashioned parenting program” on the reservation.
Sue Settles, a high-ranking BIA official from Washington, D.C., who has made several trips to the reservation and is here now for a two-week stay — and will be part of next week’s decisive review — told Hoeven that she has seen clear signs of effort and progress on the part of the tribe.
She said a tribal leader gave her a guided tour of the reservation, and she was struck by some of the challenges.
“I saw a lot of over-crowding and other problems people face,” she said. “How do you intervene when you have 10 people living under one roof and there is no other housing available?”
She attended a child protection meeting and listened to a child protection worker who had been working alone until the new professional staff arrived. She transferred money from her budget to allow the hiring.
“Who wouldn’t be overwhelmed when you’re the only one out there on the front lines?” she asked. “It was so obvious, the need they had.” She said she “saw many positive things” as she moved around the reservation and met with people trying to deal with the social services issues.
“I see the tribe taking ownership” of the problems, she said. “I see connections being made. I see they are following through on what they said they’re going to do. This is all about them wanting to take care of their families and their children.”
Hoeven said he continues to press for hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which he and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., are members, to broaden the inquiry into problems of child protection on the nation’s Indian reservations.
As to Friday’s meeting at Spirit Lake, “I tried to make it as clear as I can that we have to know the problems are being taken care of,” he said afterward.
“They’ve indicated they’re working to take care of things,” he said. “I’m still concerned. We have to verify. They’ve talked about putting systems in place, but we have to know it’s being done.”
Chuck Haga is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.