By HENRY C. JACKSON, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – The chairman of the Spirit Lake Indian Tribe said Tuesday that his reservation in northeastern North Dakota still has difficulty handling child protection issues and finding resources.
“The problems still remain,” Leander R. McDonald told a House subcommittee hearing organized by U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer. “We continue to struggle to meet the child protection needs of our community.”
McDonald said the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation is trying to change its culture and improve the way it handles justice and child care issues. But he said tribal officials have struggled to fill key social worker positions and have found limited help from the federal government.
Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, said he pushed for the hearing because he is trying to gauge whether Congress needs to take action in order to improve conditions at the reservation. He said he was disturbed by repeated cases of child abuse and two cases involving child deaths on the reservation.
“The system is failing,” he said.
Spirit Lake has had numerous documented cases of child abuse, and last year federal prosecutors successfully tried two cases involving child deaths on the reservation. The tribe has ousted a former chairman and taken other steps to fix what officials have called a broken child protection system, since it initially came under fire in 2012.
Last year, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs intervened, taking over some operations to try and improve conditions. The agency assigned seven agents to the reservation.
Tribal members agreed about a year ago to remove Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. in a recall vote, saying his administration was corrupt and ineffective and had allowed a culture of child abuse and child sexual abuse to worsen on the reservation. Yankton has denied the allegations.
Members of Congress seemed skeptical Tuesday that enough was being done to correct dire problems on the reservation. Earlier in the hearing, Cramer and other members of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs pressed federal officials about why more wasn’t being done.
Rep. Don Young was dismissive when addressing remarks from Michael S. Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Young said he was annoyed the bureau had not accomplished more during its stewardship of Spirit Lake.
“This is good words,” the Alaska Republican said. “It doesn’t necessarily accomplish something.”
Black and another federal official, Joo Yeum Chang, an associate commissioner with the Administration for Children and Families, defended the federal response and said they were doing the best they could with limited resources.
Black said conditions had improved but that his agency simply didn’t have enough resources to deal with all of Spirit Lake’s issues.
“We’re reaching a point where we’re talking to other tribes to try and recruit some of them,” he said. “To have them come up and address issues they can help us resolve.”
He added, “I think we as a community have been making progress.”