Officials see changes after Spirit Lake regains control of child welfare program

Spirit Lake Tribal Chairwoman Myra Pearson addresses a crowd at the beginning of the Spirit Lake Children’s Services Symposium on Tuesday at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. Pearson, elected Monday, said she plans on implementing measures to improve social services and other programs to protect the tribe’s children. Garrett Richie / Grand Forks Herald
Spirit Lake Tribal Chairwoman Myra Pearson addresses a crowd at the beginning of the Spirit Lake Children’s Services Symposium on Tuesday at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. Pearson, elected Monday, said she plans on implementing measures to improve social services and other programs to protect the tribe’s children. Garrett Richie / Grand Forks Herald

Spirit Lake Nation officials say they are proud to have regained control of the child welfare program this winter, nearly seven years after significant shortfalls in the agency left children unprotected.

Chairperson Myra Pearson said many factors played into the system’s failure when the program was handed over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012. There was limited intervention from officials, which caused children to remain or be placed in dangerous homes where they may have faced physical and sexual abuse and several children were murdered around the time the program closed. Pearson said the problems were fueled by lack of funding, a shortage of qualified staff and “pure neglect.”

Pearson acknowledged the failure of the program in 2011 to perform house visits or process proper background checks may have led to significant harm.

Pearson said the process to regain control of the child welfare program has been a series of hoops to make sure the tribe is able to run the program successfully. The transition began gradually, and Tribe Social Services first took back foster care services.

She said this is vitally important to the tribe because children were placed outside of the community when the program was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pearson said she believes children should stay within the community so they can learn and be immersed in their culture.

Pearson feels personally responsible for the children of Spirit Lake and said foster homes are now vetted with extreme scrutiny.

“We’re their voice because some of them don’t have homes, they don’t have parents and I want to make darn sure these kids go into a good home,” she said.

Staffing concerns are still relevant as the program reopens under tribal control. There are currently 17 employees working for the program, and Pearson said officials from the Cankdeska Cikana Community College encouraged students from the tribe to pursue education in social work because of the obvious need. Pearson hopes about five students will return to the area after they graduate within the next year.

Pearson also connected with national groups, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to work with specialists and communicate with other tribes as they seek solutions to existing problems.

With the program in tribal control, Pearson said families can receive better and more effective help than they could with the Bureau of Indian Affairs because services are available closer and there’s a better understanding of the community and culture.

The transition has been a work in progress, Pearson said, but tribal leaders, employees and the community are determined to protect the children.