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Published May 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Federal officials step up oversight of Spirit Lake Tribe social services programs

Letter alerted officials to ‘dangerous malpractice history’
FARGO – Federal officials are stepping up oversight of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services programs in response to warnings that children’s health and safety are endangered by mismanagement.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

FARGO – Federal officials are stepping up oversight of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s social services programs in response to warnings that children’s health and safety are endangered by mismanagement.

Michael S. Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has outlined plans for corrective action with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and members of his staff.

“He understands the seriousness of the situation,” Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff and legal counsel, said of Black’s response to a “letter of grave concern” by a clinical psychologist for the Indian Health Service based in Fort Totten.

The letter by Michael Tilus, dated April 3, alerted officials of the BIA, IHS and others of what he regarded as a “continual dangerous malpractice history of Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services.”

The BIA will add a full-time official with a social work background at Spirit Lake Nation to assist the tribe and monitor its social services programs, Bernstein said.

BIA officials will visit with Spirit Lake tribal officials Monday and Tuesday to check on progress in addressing administrative deficiencies and to discuss a plan to correct the problems, he said.

Even before Tilus’ letter, the BIA was aware of serious problems involving the administration of several social services programs, including the lack of documentation and accounting for funds.

Regional officials of the BIA based in Aberdeen, S.D., in an annual program review issued on Nov. 11, documented problems with several assistance programs funded by the federal agency.

Deficiencies included missing documentation and verification for a general assistance program, including lack of eligibility for assistance.

The BIA review of its individual Indian money program at Spirit Lake found that bank accounts were not labeled to allow tracking of the funds, and previous corrective action steps were not addressed or completed.

Most problems were documented in the BIA’s funding for foster child assistance, which was rife with lack of documentation, including identification records for children receiving assistance, missing court orders, lack of documentation of family income eligibility, and lack of foster care agreements.

“They’re taking big steps to address this,” Don Canton, Hoeven’s communications director, said of Black’s plans for stepping up BIA oversight at Spirit Lake, which is located near Devils Lake.

Accounting for funding provided by the BIA to support foster children is an area of particular concern, Bernstein said.

“There needs to be greater transparency and accountability” on those funds, he said.

Bernstein said the BIA acknowledges the need for better oversight, and the full-time BIA staff person, once in place, should help to provide that.

Meanwhile, officials of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, which also funds some foster care children for the tribe through a federal program, continue to work with the tribe to resolve problems.

A review by state human services officials in January found case plans for foster care children either didn’t exist, were incomplete or not up to date.

State officials also documented deficiencies in court orders involving placement of children into foster care, lack of procedural safeguards, and inadequate health and education records for the foster children.

Because of the tribe’s lack of compliance, the state suspended funds for 36 children it supports, including 31 foster children and five children awaiting adoption.

The state has accepted Spirit Lake Tribe’s plan to regain compliance of its use of the funds, but state officials remained concerned about whether the tribe’s staffing levels are adequate.

Funding was suspended after the January review, and the tribe will not be able to recover the funds made available through the state until it provides more information, said Tara Muhlhauser, North Dakota’s children and family services director.

“They’re making progress,” she said. “We need additional documentation.”

Roger Yankton, chairman of Spirit Lake Tribe, was not available for comment. In a statement issued earlier to The Forum, he said the tribe is working to resolve the problems despite staffing and funding challenges.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522