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Psychologist: Spirit Lake social services in crisis

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. - A suicidal girl who was allowed to be shuttled between homes with sex offenders. Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect left ignored.

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. - A suicidal girl who was allowed to be shuttled between homes with sex offenders. Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect left ignored. A child protection worker convicted of felony child abuse.

Those are among a raft of problems cited by a senior clinical psychologist who contends that social services administered by Spirit Lake Nation are mired in mismanagement that endangers abused and neglected children.

Michael Tilus, director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center here, has written a "letter of grave concern" to state and federal officials describing alleged widespread failures creating what he describes as an ongoing crisis.

"I and most of the other agencies on and off the reservation that work together around child welfare have no confidence in the TSS" - tribal social services - "leadership or program, BIA superintendent, or Spirit Lake Tribal Council to provide safe, responsible, legal, ethical and moral services to the abused and neglected children of the Spirit Lake Tribe," Tilus wrote in an April 3 letter.

Tilus, who is a commander of the U.S. Public Health Service, cites a litany of problems, including what he calls a "continual dangerous malpractice history," of Spirit Lake tribal social services.


Roger Yankton, chairman of Spirit Lake Tribe, said the safety of children is a priority, and the tribe has worked "diligently" for years to address and prevent child abuse and neglect.

"Compounding issues of system-wide response are legal and jurisdictional complexities, severe funding and personnel deficiencies and difficulties in securing and retaining the services of qualified and well-trained personnel to name a few," Yankton said in a written statement.

Among Tilus' allegations:

• "Dozens of cases" over the past five years where tribal officials illegally removed children from homes without tribal court authorization. Former social services employees have told The Forum that foster children were returned to dangerous homes where they were, in the past, subjected to abuse or neglect.

• Tribal social services officials "intentionally misrepresented themselves and lied" when confronted about the lack of legal documents authorizing tribal social services as legal guardians of the vulnerable children.

Another case worker wrote that, as a young child, the female was beaten with a broom, wire clothes hangers, fly swatter and belt buckle. Numerous reports of suspected child abuse and neglect involving the female were filed involving allegations of sexual molestation, the social worker wrote in March.

Repeated reports of suspected abuse and neglect to tribal social services went unanswered, the clinical social worker wrote. It is one of "dozens" of such cases Tilus and his staff have encountered, he said.

Tilus declined to comment to The Forum about his allegations and referred questions to an Indian Health Services spokeswoman in Aberdeen, S.D. Requests for comment from IHS were not returned.


Similarly, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which funds many of the tribe's social services programs, did not respond to The Forum's requests for a response to Tilus' allegations, including his characterization of the BIA superintendent at Spirit Lake of "gross dereliction of duty and professional misconduct."

Two former tribal social services employees, a child protection investigator and a foster child case manager, told The Forum that Tilus' letter raises valid concerns about mismanagement and resulting child endangerment.

Betty Jo Krenz is a former foster care case manager who was fired after she voiced similar concerns about problems with social services.

Glen Delorme last week left his job as a child protection investigator for the tribe after clashing with his superiors about problems.

"I'm behind Dr. Tilus 110 percent," Delorme said, "and the cries he has are 110 percent legitimate. He has the paper trail to prove it."

Delorme, who has twice worked as a child protection investigator for the tribe in recent years, said Tilus was thwarted when he repeatedly went through internal channels for years to try to correct problems that endanger children.

"It's been happening for five years," he said. "He knows his stuff, that man, and he got tired of all the crap, basically."

Krenz, who was fired last year after working as a foster care case manager for seven or eight months, said the tribe has a pattern of firing employees who question practices.


The tribe repeatedly has ignored attempts by concerned staff members to correct deficiencies that endanger children, Delorme and Krenz said.

"The tribe can say anything on paper," Krenz said.

Yankton's statement did not specifically address any of Tilus' allegations, but called his actions a "disruption" to the tribe's efforts to make improvements in the face of funding, jurisdictional and personnel challenges. He acknowledges employee "burnout" was a problem given scarce resources, and said it was difficult to attract and keep qualified staff.

"Despite these factors the Spirit Lake Tribal Council, in conjunction with personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Spirit Lake Tribe Social Services agency has been working diligently to develop and implement internal controls relating to case management, to address fiscal concerns with funding agencies and to develop program modification plans to ensure compliance with legal and fiscal mandates relating to the program."

Tilus recommended that the BIA close Spirit Lake Tribe's social services agency and completely overhaul the program. "The problems are too systemic and acute," he wrote, "to patch up the program."

His letter concluded: "It is my professional opinion that with this systemic unchecked incompetence, the abused and neglected children on this reservation face repeated traumatic life-altering consequences without an end, ever cycling them through repeated suicidal attempts with increasing grave rise for suicidal completions."

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

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