'Finger-pointing' and unanswered questions in child's death at Spirit Lake
GRAND FORKS - When Tribal Social Services at Spirit Lake brought 2-year-old Laurynn Whiteshield and her twin sister back to the reservation in May from the Bismarck foster home where they had lived for most of their brief lives, the department fo...
GRAND FORKS - When Tribal Social Services at Spirit Lake brought 2-year-old Laurynn Whiteshield and her twin sister back to the reservation in May from the Bismarck foster home where they had lived for most of their brief lives, the department followed to the letter the process spelled out in the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, the department's interim director said Wednesday.
The 1978 act, designed to help tribes preserve their identity and culture after decades of watching their children removed to distant schools and non-Indian foster homes, puts a priority on placing Indian children in Indian homes, preferably with relatives.
"All those t's were crossed and all those i's were dotted," said Paul Hutchinson, a University of North Dakota-trained social worker who took over the tribal department earlier this year.
Hutchinson said he could not discuss whether background checks performed prior to the girl's placement with her grandfather included a check on Freeman Whiteshield's wife, Hope.
"I can't confirm that and I can't deny it," he said. "It's an ongoing investigation."
Hope Tomahawk White-shield, 31, is in federal custody charged with pushing Laurynn, 2 years, 11 months, down an embankment June 12, causing injuries that apparently led to her death that night or the following day.
Whiteshield admitted to an FBI investigator that she pushed Laurynn down the embankment, according to an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint, because she "was getting depressed about having kids all the time."
A partial criminal record for Hope Whiteshield, offered in testimony by the tribal prosecutor during a detention hearing last month in U.S. District Court, included a half-dozen arrests involving child abuse, neglect, endangerment and abandonment of her own children over a period of several years.
"There's a whole bunch of finger-pointing going on here" at Spirit Lake, Hutchinson said. "I am baffled why nobody is mentioning Hope's name.
"I would love to rip loose, but I can't," he said. "As to whose fault it is, not once have I heard Hope's name mentioned in any of the meetings here. And she is the person who's being held."
Shirley Cain, chief tribal judge at Spirit Lake until she was dismissed by the Tribal Council last week, said then that her sudden departure was related to "the disaster" of the girl's death, but she was reluctant at that time to go into detail, including whether she was aware of Hope Whiteshield's record or whether a background check had been conducted on the stepmother.
On Tuesday, Cain told a Fargo TV station that she feels guilty about accepting a social worker's recommendation to place the twins with their grandfather and his wife. She did not identify the social worker.
"I feel so bad for the other child," Laurynn's twin sister, Cain said in the KVLY-TV interview. "She has to remember this," the death of her sister.
"I want to apologize."
The sister, Michaela, also was pushed over the embankment, according to the criminal complaint, but fell differently and was not seriously hurt.
"The social worker gave me a recommendation, and I had to go with that," Cain said. "Judges can't investigate everything."
She did not elaborate, and she was not asked on camera whether a background check was conducted on Hope Whiteshield. Cain did not return a call to her personal cellphone Wednesday seeking further comment.
The twins' father, Fabian Whiteshield, lives in Bismarck. Their mother, Davia Skinner, lives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It has not been disclosed when or why the children were removed from their care.
Hutchinson took over at Tribal Social Services this year, replacing Mark Little Owl, who faces charges in Grand Forks District Court over a domestic disturbance involving his former wife.
Little Owl, a former social services director with another tribe, had been brought in by the Spirit Lake Tribe last summer to try to resolve failings in the tribe's child protection system. He was on the job only a few weeks, however, before the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs assumed control over most child protection programs on the reservation.
One program that remained with Tribal Social Services, with federal funding through the state, covers certain foster care cases, including the Whiteshield twin sisters.
Hutchinson said he is "aware of what Judge Cain said" in her interview but could not comment.
"I won't say I'm happy with it or that I'm unhappy," he said.
Hutchinson said he met for 90 minutes Tuesday with Leander (Russ) McDonald, a day after McDonald was sworn in as Spirit Lake's new tribal chairman, and they discussed the Whiteshield child's placement and death. McDonald was elected chairman Monday after tribal members voted to remove former Chairman Roger Yankton Sr.
"I reported to the chairman that I have followed everything by the book, by the North Dakota state rules, and I incorporated tribal law," Hutchinson said.
"I found the chairman to be quite engaging, quite direct, and certainly tired from his nearly 24 hours as chairman. We talked for an hour and a half. ... The questions he had were right to the point, and I tried to answer them as accurately as I possibly could."
Hutchinson said he is bound by law and privacy requirements when it comes to discussing details of specific cases involving children. He said he is frustrated by the swirl of questions and allegations regarding the Whiteshield case.
"The process is always the same" with regard to finding the appropriate placement for a child, he said. "ICWA has a protocol and a process that has to be followed. It's a congressional mandate.
"In any ICWA case, once a child is brought back to a reservation, the court has custody and the recipient parent - it could be a brother, an aunt, a grandparent - they generally get what's called 'care and control.' In this case, that would be Freeman Whiteshield. Once ICWA does its duty and (confirms) tribal enrollment and does the background check on the recipient, and all that checks out, the transfer begins."
Hutchinson said FBI special agents investigating the death of the Whiteshield girl have "talked with my ICWA coordinator two or three times. We are providing any information they need, whether it be the FBI or the U.S. Attorney's Office."
Critics of the Yankton administration repeatedly alleged that children were being placed in homes where registered sex offenders lived, FBI and police were failing to investigate or prosecute cases of child abuse and neglect identified by whistle blowers, and social workers were not making required home visits to check on the welfare of children.
Yankton and other tribal officials disputed those charges, arguing that they were making progress but were limited by a lack of funding, housing, qualified foster homes and trained personnel.