House Panel Faults Feds Intervention Into Tribe's Foster Care Case

Lawmakers chastised the Spirit Lake Reservation after death and abuse reports surfaced in 2012. The Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the program, but the federal government isn't doing much better.

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Native American tribes across the country have been closely watching the efforts of one small tribe in North Dakota as it tries to regain control of its foster child program. Reports of deaths and abuse surfaced two years ago at the Spirit Lake Reservation, causing the Federal Bureau of Indian affairs to step in. But as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday made clear the federal takeover has not ended the controversy.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Spirit Lake Indian Reservation sits on 250,000 acres of land on a remote part of North Dakota. It's one of the poorest places in the nation - few resources, few jobs, little law enforcement. For many years, the tribe ran its own foster care program. But in 2012, reports surfaced of rampant abuse and neglect of children in the program. The Bureau of Indian Affairs took over but yesterday's hearing of the house committee on Indian Affairs showed the program to be still short of workers and funding. Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican from the state, has been deeply critical of the tribe in the past. Yesterday, he seemed equally frustrated with the efforts of the BIA and Health and Human Services.

CONGRESSMAN KEVIN CRAMER: There is a clumsiness. You've got bureaucracy and then you have bureaucracy and when you have two bureaucracies, you have a worse situation than one plus one.

SULLIVAN: The federal government has provided only eight BIA officers to patrol the entire reservation. And tribal officials say the Justice Department is still failing to prosecute many of the cases of child assault and sexual abuse. Tribal Chairman Leander McDonald is the new chief of the tribe.

LEANDER MCDONALD: There was things that were not happening within our community that needed to happen.

SULLIVAN: McDonald has made significant changes - firing people and bringing in outside experts. But he says the federal government has never lived up to its end of the bargain. He says the tribe traded in its land in the 1800s for the promise of education, health and its own survival.

MCDONALD: It doesn't say within the treaties that we're going to provide these to you inadequately. It doesn't say that. It says we're going to provide these things to you.

SULLIVAN: While many of the initial reports of rampant child abuse on Spirit Lake have so far proven unfounded, tribal officials acknowledged there is a problem - there and on reservations across the country. But some child welfare advocates who testified yesterday stressed that statistically, tribes are no different from many other communities nationwide, especially those who have struggled to emerge from historic poverty and inequality. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, the Capitol.

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