Federal and state officials say they have documented glaring flaws in the child welfare system at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, contending that while child abuse there is at epidemic levels, the tribe has sought to conceal it.
The problems uncovered by medical and social services administrators include foster children who have been sent to homes where registered sex offenders live and a teenage sexual-abuse victim who was placed in a tribal home and subsequently raped.
The tribe northeastern North Dakota, federal officials said, also hired a children's case worker who had been convicted of felony child abuse and employed another social worker who discovered a 1-year-old child covered with 100 wood ticks but did not take the child to a hospital.
The conditions led the state to take the unusual step this year of suspending financing for 31 tribal children in foster care.
Concerns about the children of Spirit Lake extends to minors outside the social services system as well. In May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were found dead, raped and sodomized, inside their father's home on the reservation, a federal official said. By the time their bodies were found under a mattress, the children may have been dead for as long as three days.
The tribe, officials said, has not conducted required background checks before placing foster children, failed to make mandated monthly visits to children in foster care and illegally removed foster children from homes and placed them elsewhere without determining that the new homes would be safe.
Unease about the tribe's ability to adequately safeguard children has escalated in the past several weeks after two scathing, detailed e-mails were sent by federal officials to their superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging misconduct by reservation officials.
In a June 14 e-mail sent to his managers in Washington, Thomas Sullivan, the regional administrator for the Administration for Children and Families for six states, called on the government to declare a state of emergency at Spirit Lake, cut off its federal financing and charge the tribe's leader with child endangerment to combat what he described as "daunting" child abuse being covered up.
American Indians make up 9 percent of the state's population, but Indian children constitute nearly 30 percent of its child abuse victims, said a 2009 study by the Department of Health and Human Services. While statistics related to abuse at Spirit Lake are not public information, federal officials believe that the reservation has an even more significant child abuse problem than other reservations.
As one indication, it is home to 38 registered sex offenders out of a population of 4,500, said Justice Department figures -- a far higher proportion than in most U.S. cities and towns. Tribal officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Mark Weber, a Health and Human Services spokesman, said the agency was working "to address concerns."