Earlier this spring, Thomas Sullivan was fired. As Regional administrator of the Administration for Children and Families overseeing the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, Sullivan issued 13 different “mandated reports” about the problems of child abuse there. These reports were mandated not because his superiors asked him for his input — indeed, he had been instructed not to speak publicly about these matters. Rather, the reports are mandated because teachers, psychologists, and others who work with vulnerable populations are required by law to report abuses. Here’s a sample from Sullivan’s last one:
The Tribal Elder who observed two little boys engaging in anal sex in her yard did call police immediately. No one in law enforcement took her statement. She tried to tell her story at the February 27, 2013 Hearing but she was shushed by the US Attorney, the BIA leadership and all of those on the platform. The US Attorney did say publicly that he would speak to her privately after the Hearing concluded. He did not. Nor did anyone from his office take her statement. How did these actions protect children?
One day later, on February 28, 2013, these same two boys were observed by two little girls engaging in oral sex on a Spirit Lake school bus. The little girls reported this to the bus driver, their teachers and the school principal.
All of these responsible people kept quiet about this incident. None filed a Form 960 as required. How do these actions protect children? On March 14, 2013 law enforcement went to the home of these two boys because one of them tried to sexually assault a three year old female neighbor who is developmentally delayed.
Police were called last summer when adults and very young children observed a 15 year old boy having intercourse with a 10 year old girl on the steps of the church in St. Michaels at mid-day. No one responded to the call.
Sullivan’s reports go on like this at length, each more exasperated (and exasperating) than the last. He details incidents that have been reported to him by one or more reputable sources — including tribal leaders, law enforcement, and even a nun. He notes that either no action has been taken or someone has provided some absurd excuse — people have told him that sex between a man and an adolescent girl hadn’t been further investigated because it was “consensual.” His sources have been threatened. He continued anyway, despite the threats to his career — now made good — and quite possibly his physical safety.
Sullivan is not alone. In 2012, Michael R. Tilus, director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center, e-mailed state and federal health officials about what he saw as the “epidemic” of abuse on the reservation. In July of that year, according to a report in the New York Times, “a 2-month-old girl died there after tribal officials had received warnings of child abuse, according to a federal official, and in May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were sexually assaulted before being stabbed to death and left under a mattress. Their bloody bodies were discovered several days later.”
Tilus, who had worked for the Public Health Service for 10 years, was actually reprimanded for sending the e-mail. His superiors at the clinic at Spirit Lake accused him of “engaging in action and behavior of a dishonorable nature” because he hadn’t gone through the proper channels to register his complaint. They rescinded his promotion and transferred him to another position.
A few days after the Times reported on the reprimand, the director of the Indian Health Service rescinded Tilus’s punishment, and in October 2012, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the tribe’s social services. But according to an investigation by PBS’s Frontline, “Some residents have questioned how much has changed.” In February 2013, the Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted a “town-hall meeting,” in which it told local congressmen as well as residents that it was “following up on several hundred abuse allegations and had hired additional staff to handle the high caseload.”
While Spirit Lake is hardly representative of reservations, the sad truth is that the rate of child abuse among Native Americans is twice as high as the national average. Some say this is the result of a cycle of abuse that began when the parents and grandparents of people on reservations today were sent against their will to boarding schools. There they were not only made to give up their language and culture in an exercise in forced assimilation. Many of them were raped, molested, and beaten by white teachers and administrators. Other observers say the abuse on reservations today is simply the result of extreme poverty and deprivation these communities are experiencing.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that the federal government is failing in its duties to protect Native children.
In one of his reports, Sullivan compares the situation at Spirit Lake to the situation at Penn State or in the Catholic Church. The authorities knew about the problems and looked the other way. Now the problems have been publicized, and people continue to look the other way. Perhaps a better comparison is to the case of Rotherham, England, where widespread child abuse was found to have taken place between 1997 and 2013. Investigators uncovered almost 1,400 cases of abuse, many of which had been documented in reports by a Home Office researcher in 2002. When the news broke, many people wondered how these horrors could have been ignored for so long. The reports were suppressed out of “political correctness,” some in British government have speculated, because the perpetrators and the local political leadership were largely of Muslim descent.
Denis MacShane, Rotherham’s former representative in Parliament, told the BBC that he should have done more to find out the truth of what was going on. He admitted he should have “burrowed into” the issue: “I think there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat if I may put it like that.” He said that his liberal views made him reluctant to raise the issue of how the Muslim community treated women.
Just as British leaders didn’t want to accuse a largely Muslim community of abusing young girls, so the U.S. government doesn’t want to make too much of an Indian community engaging in widespread child abuse. There’s so much guilt about racism, about what was done to these communities in the past, that they don’t want to shine a light on crimes taking place now. But the truth is that, in the name of protecting these communities, we’re failing to protect their most vulnerable members.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, to be published July 26, 2016, by Encounter Books.