Just before Congress broke for the July 4 holiday, the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs of the Natural Resources Committee exercised its jurisdictional authority to conduct a hearing on recent child welfare and child abuse problems on the Spirit Lake reservation. Spirit Lake is an Indian reservation of approximately 6,600 residents lying within the North Dakota boarders. In recent years it has captured some national attention with a series of child deaths and the complaints of a whistleblower who has alleged abuses in regard to child protection and the operation of the child welfare system including foster care. As a result the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) stepped in and conducted an audit in 2012 which said the conditions at Spirit Lake posed an “imminent danger” to children in foster-care homes on the reservation, and those children referred to by the tribe’s child-welfare agency. The hearing was organized at the request of subcommittee member and North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND).

Child welfare and child abuse circumstances are more complicated on Tribal land due to a confluence of factors that include a mix of law enforcement jurisdictions involving the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI and others, the high level of poverty on some reservations, all against a backdrop of historic discrimination sometimes carrier out as a national policy. With both the BIA and the Children’s Bureau (HHS) stepping in, there are claims that circumstances have not improved over the past two years.

The two panels during the hearing included Michael S. Black, Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Joo Yeun Chang, Associate Commissioner Children’s Bureau, HHS, Leander R. McDonald, PhD, Chairman Spirit Lake Tribe Fort Totten, North Dakota, Molly McDonald, Devils Lake, ND, Anita Fineday JD, Managing Director Indian Child Welfare Program, Casey Family Programs.

Mr Black said that it was “important to focus on Spirit Lake because it is an example of the serious challenges that many Indian reservations are facing.’ He went on to say that with limited resources, “challenges remain in Indian country and in many states., “ He went on to document recent cuts including those imposed through sequestration cutting over $6.2 million from BIA Human Services and $17 million from BIA Public Safety and Justice. He then went on to detail what actions the Tribe has taken to address the situation saying that they have not hide from increased scrutiny, including the use of BIA and Justice Department reviews and assistance.

Commissioner Chang spoke to some of the work of the Children’s Bureau indicating that between 2007 and 2014, ACF was involved in four reviews of the Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services department. They have also held listening sessions with various stakeholders to get a better understanding of the challenges and issues. The sessions included representatives from the Spirit Lake tribal child welfare system, including current and former social workers, current and former juvenile judges, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) staff, school district staff, North Dakota state and county human services staff, and law enforcement.

Mr. Leander McDonald outlined the challenges he is facing as they try and make changes. He highlighted the vast shortages in staffing, staff training, equipment, data capacity. He went on to say, “As Chairman, I have come to realize the complexity of this issue and the need for our law enforcement, child protection services, tribal court, and tribal social services to communicate and work together to create an exemplary system. All of the areas have been historically underfunded at approximately 60% of need resulting in a lack of capacity, inadequate services, system distrust, and gaps in the system. We struggle to provide the most basic services, but we have achieved milestones in a positive direction. I believe that given the proper resources we could build a good system for our Nation.”

In addition to Mr. McDonald’s comments, Molly McDonald, a former Associate/Juvenile Judge who served on the reservation give examples of the systematic abuses she saw and experienced in her work on the reservation.

As part of his opening remarks and comments to the panelists, Subcommittee Chairman Donald Young (R-AK) said that he wants to see progress in the work of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Children’s Bureau and if he didn’t there might be another hearing in six months implying legislative action. For the testimony and a copy of the hearing go to: Child Protection and the Justice System on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation