The tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation run their own family services agencies, funded by the tribes themselves, federal grants and contracts with the state. But the Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services and the larger family welfare system on the reservation has some work to do.
Reviews over the years have pointed to big problems and some of them have gone years without being addressed effectively. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov has the story.
IRINA ZHOROV: 22-month Marcella Yellowbear died on July 2nd, 2004.
ED NEWELL: She was basically tortured to death over a period of several weeks by her parents in Riverton.
ZHOROV: That’s Ed Newell. He was the Fremont County Attorney at the time…and prosecuted the case.
He says perhaps even more horrifying than the extensive trauma the girl’s small body had suffered…was the sense that it could have been prevented. Northern Arapaho Child Protective Services removed her from her parents’ custody and placed her with relatives…but she ended up back in her abusive home and the agency didn’t even know about it.
NEWELL: And the fact that she was returned to the home without judicial oversight, without judicial order, without follow up is something that greatly concerned us. We were wondering throughout the course of the case how did this happen?
ZHOROV: Newell never got a satisfactory answer to that question. And during the trial, he says, the Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services wouldn’t even share the case files with him, only with the defense team. The girl’s father was eventually convicted of murder…but Newell says other things went unresolved.
NEWELL: What I had hoped to see was some sort of acknowledgment that Gee, you know, this was a horrific outcome, this was a circumstance where the system clearly didn’t work as it should have and we need to take a serious look at the agency and see what changes need to be made so that it doesn’t happen again. And my sense is that never occurred.
ZHOROV: This year marks 10 years since Marcella’s murder. She would have turned 12 this year. The Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services has moved into a new building, has passed into the hands of a new director, and has undergone some reorganization. Yet, records indicate there were at least another 3 deaths in the system since 2006…and maybe more.
Irenice Noseep worked for the Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services from 2009 to 2012.
IRENICE NOSEEP: Of course the job is pretty stressful and it started out fine. And then I noticed that there was a real accountability problem.
ZHOROV: She says workers would come in late and take long lunches. Calls went uninvestigated. The director, who by then was current agency head James Trosper, was not accessible.
NOSEEP: I would say maybe…he was not in the office, maybe twice a month he might come in for a short period of time and he just was not there….he was unavailable.
ZHOROV: She says employees did not undergo performance evaluations…and there were few employment standards. She says many case workers lacked education…which she sees as necessary for the job. She wrote an email to the state DFS…and eventually, she quit.
NOSEEP: I just, ethically, I just couldn’t stay there and work.
ZHOROV: Others told similar stories. In fact, statistics by the Wyoming DFS for the last 2 years show the agency has the worst track record for timely action, and one of the lowest for face to face contact with clients.
Wyoming DFS recently performed a review of the Northern Arapaho DFS. Program Manager for the state’s Social Services Division, Debra Hibbard says the report pointed to a lack of documentation in case files…
DEBRA HIBBARD: Safety wasn’t really addressed
ZHOROV: It also said households did not undergo safety and background checks to show that the child’s foster home is safer than the previous home.
HIBBARD: We saw that maintaining relationship with parents may be a little delayed, not having a visitation with them….
ZHOROV: The report makes it clear that state money is being used to provide a potentially unsafe service. The last contract was for 2.2 million dollars for the year.
Hibbard agrees with Noseep that a degree for new hires would go a long way to maintaining a qualified workforce. She says the profession is innately traumatizing, to both client and worker, and a relevant education would help with decision making. She says the state provides training…but it’s not comprehensive.
HIBBARD: Ours is a 4 week course. It’s not very many hours. We do hit on trauma, and ongoing trauma within a worker as well as trauma of the children and the families. But it’s a couple hours, it’s not weeks of that process when you go through a college course.
ZHOROV: A 2007 report noted many of these same things. It also pointed out that the program needed more case workers. But Debra Hibbard says right now the agency is funded and staffed properly…
As for the current report….the Northern Arapaho Business Council says it “mischaracterizes” the tribal child-welfare system... and claims the report has inaccuracies…and lacks important context. Director of Northern Arapaho DFS, James Trosper, who answers to the Business Council, agrees.
JAMES TROSPER: I’m not saying that we’re perfect. And I’m not saying that every one of the workers are perfect. But I feel like they’re doing a good job. And I think no matter how good they do, there’s always going to be people criticizing.
ZHOROV: Trosper says workers are qualified. He says they use the state’s HR guidelines….which call for a degree OR experience and all workers meet one or the other. He says work evaluations are done annually. He also says a lack of documentation…does not mean a lack of action…
TROSPER: There are plenty of examples that I know personally of where…where the worker was so overwhelmed…they made the right things, they just didn’t put the right documentation.
ZHOROV: Trosper says background checks on foster parents are done every time but they’re sometimes not input into the statewide system, called WYCAPS, which he says is burdensome.
Trosper also says state offices have more support positions than his, which means case workers have to do more.
TROSPER: They give us enough funding for the case workers themselves and think they should be able to do the job that their case workers do without taking into consideration all those other positions.
ZHOROV: Hibbard says those claims don’t reflect reality.
As for the recommendations made in the report, Trosper says his department is already doing a lot of these things. And he rejects the notion that he’s what some call a “ghost employee.”
TROSPER: There definitely are meetings and there are duties of my job that do take me out of the office, but there is plenty of time that I’m here at the office.
ZHOROV: Trosper is happy to have input…but he says it’s unproductive to criticize his workers in what he perceives as an unfair manner. He and the Business Council have gone on the defensive….but Hibbard says she just documented what she saw.
Everyone agrees that the population served by the Northern Arapaho Department of Family Services is a vulnerable one. Unemployment on Wind River is high…as is poverty. Crime rates are higher than in the rest of the state. School graduation rates are low. Being a case worker on the reservation is a hard job…
Ed Newell, the prosecutor in the Yellowbear case, says that shouldn’t be an excuse.
NEWELL: I know that there are serious socioeconomic problems on the reservation and lots of challenges to be met. I know that it’s a very very difficult environment and I think it’s essential to the future of the tribe that they have a good effective efficient well-managed social services agency.
ZHOROV: For Marcella Yellowbear, it’s too late. But the state and tribe are working on short-term and long-term plans to address some of the issues. And another review is forthcoming, which the tribe requested to evaluate its program. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.