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Published July 12, 2012, 11:30 PM

Did someone fail Baby Deborah? At Spirit Lake, family grapples with infant’s death

OBERON, N.D. – Deborah Kaye Anderson will be mourned Saturday at a funeral on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, home for all her brief life. The infant girl, 2 months old when she died last week, will be laid to rest wearing a white christening dress and an Indian headband decorated with a white plume.

By: By Patrick Springer and Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, INFORUM

OBERON, N.D. – Deborah Kaye Anderson will be mourned Saturday at a funeral on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, home for all her brief life.

The infant girl, 2 months old when she died last week, will be laid to rest wearing a white christening dress and an Indian headband decorated with a white plume.

Her great-aunt, Patricia Anderson, arranged for the burial clothes.

“The headband is just to show that she was Indian,” the aunt said. “Social Services (at Spirit Lake) denied it. But she lived and she died on a reservation.”

Deborah Kaye’s death at her mother’s home in the small reservation town of St. Michael has been cited by some family members and others as the latest evidence that the Spirit Lake Nation’s child protection system needs an overhaul.

Rainey Anderson, the baby’s mother, is distraught over Deborah Kaye’s death and by suggestions that it may have been due to neglect, said Jennifer Strouse, Rainey Anderson’s sister. Rainey and the entire family loved the baby, she said, and she objected to the death being tied to the increasingly heated debate over child protection on the reservation, especially before autopsy results are made public.

But whether Deborah Kaye’s death was due to SIDS – sudden infant death syndrome – or neglect or some other cause, questions remain about how concerns for her welfare were handled.

Thomas Sullivan, a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families in Denver, cited Deborah Kaye’s death in an email addressed on Sunday to federal and state officials, arguing that someone “has failed in their basic responsibilities, resulting in child endangerment in the extreme.”

Tribal, state and federal officials have been reluctant to address the death or child protection generally at Spirit Lake beyond saying they are investigating. They caution that rumors and misleading information have filled the summer air on and well beyond the reservation.

But Anderson family members told Forum Communications they repeatedly warned social service agencies that the baby and other children were at risk in the St. Michael home, but nothing was done as officials on and off the reservation were “passing the buck.”

‘In order of emergency’

Patricia Anderson, who lives just off the reservation in Oberon, is unapologetic about trying to intervene in her niece’s life, feeling frustrated by the system’s response and speaking out now in defiance of tribal authorities.

She said she started urging Rainey Anderson to get help more than a year ago, after the death of her sister, Rainey’s mother. She said she was concerned about Rainey’s two other young daughters.

Believing that Rainey had a drug problem, she called the tribal social services office at Fort Totten “and got blew off,” she said, perhaps because Rainey is not an enrolled member at Spirit Lake. (She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, her aunt said, and her children are enrolled at Spirit Lake.) She said she then called Benson County, which along with Ramsey County, covers much of the reservation.

She said the Benson County social worker was sympathetic but told her the tribal office had jurisdiction.

“I called there again and insisted on an appointment,” Patricia Anderson said. “But I was more or less told, ‘Mind your own business.’ She said she had more important cases and had to take them in order of emergency.”

She said Rainey Anderson wouldn’t respond when she confronted her shortly after the birth of

Deborah Kaye.

“Part of the problem is that our kids are brought up not to talk back to elders. I told her, ‘I love you and I want you to be safe and I want that baby to be safe.’ But she didn’t say anything. She knew she couldn’t defend herself.”

No covering up

Melody Christianson, Patricia’s sister and another of Rainey’s aunts, lives in St. Michael, and she also tried to help. Groceries were a lower priority than drugs and parties in the house where Rainey Anderson and her children lived with as many as 15 other adults and children, according to the aunts.

“Rainey was selling food stamps to get pills,” Christianson said. “I would drop off food two or three times a week, sometimes more often, sometimes less.”

She said she also took charge of Rainey’s older daughter for a time “because she wasn’t going to school.”

When the baby was born, Christianson said her concern grew.

“I didn’t see the baby that much because of what was going on in that house,” she said. “But I threatened her (Rainey)” if she didn’t clean up her act.

“I don’t think she did anything to that baby,” Christianson said. But she thought there was little “bonding” with the infant.

Patricia Anderson said she is convinced that Deborah Kaye’s death was due at least in part to neglect and was preventable, if the child protection network had functioned properly.

“We’ve got a dead baby, and we’re not covering up anything anymore,” she said. “We couldn’t do anything about Deborah Kaye, but if this saves one little child …”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald


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

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