Official: Spirit Lake Social Services in crisis

By Patrick Springer
Fort Totten, North Dakota (AP) April 2012

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 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. The TSS refers to tribal social services.

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 Forum Communications 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.

– Child abuse, which Tilus termed a societal epidemic and public health disaster in Indian country, often goes uninvestigated at Spirit Lake.

During one recent three-week period, Tilus filed 10 suspected child abuse or neglect reports with the tribe. A short time later, the tribe’s child protection investigator was fired.

“To date, we are not aware of any follow up on any of these filed allegations of potential child abuse,” Tilus wrote. When he called for an update, he was told the office had no record of his reports, and no paper trail to refer to staff.

Also, “Parents who have informed us about potential child abuse reported back to (Tilus’) staff after months, if not more than a year, that they have never been talked to” by tribal child protection officials on reports the parents or his staff filed.

– Behavioral health professionals and parents of removed children complained that their repeated attempts to reach tribal social services officials to discuss “acute needs” and receiving only a “never-ending lesson of `no response.’ “

– An earlier child protection services staff member was herself convicted of felony child abuse yet still was hired by tribal social services, who acknowledged the employee’s criminal background when confronted about it.

– Tribal social services staff members misrepresented themselves in tribal court appearances and “lied about their work.”

– The tribe’s case management activity “began to fall by the wayside” as staff members’ “reckless and random behavior” continued involving behavioral health clients, many of them minors.

Ultimately, the problems became so severe last year that Tilus decided to refuse any more referrals from tribal social services at Spirit Lake, limiting cases to emergency assessment for suicidal risk.

“It was frankly too dangerous professionally to work alongside with TSS,” Tilus wrote. “I feared TSS behavior could, or would, expose them and by complicity BHD to possible FBI investigation for child abduction, child endangerment, and potentially felony neglect.”

To illustrate the problems he has encountered, Tilus included a case example of a young female who tried to commit suicide and encountered “major dysfunction” in her family.

Notes, with the name and identifying information removed, indicated the girl shifted back and forth between her divorced mother and father, and that a sex offender was present in both homes.

“She was acting up in school swearing at teachers and threatening to harm the principal at the time,” a licensed social worker wrote, noting she was hospitalized at Prairie St. John’s in Fargo and tried to commit suicide by cutting in January.

Another case worker wrote that as a young child, the female was beaten with a broom, wire clothes hangers, a fly swatter and a 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 Forum Communications 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 Forum Communication’s requests for a response to Tilus’ allegations, including his accusation against 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 Forum Communications 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 recently 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 acknowledged 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,” he said.

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.”