The Presidential Task Force on Protecting Native American Children in the Indian Health Service System presented their findings and recommendations to First Lady Melania Trump at the White House on Thursday.
President Donald Trump announced the formation of the task force in March 2019. He charged the members with investigating the institutional and systemic breakdown that failed to prevent a predatory pediatrician, Dr. Stanley Weber, from sexually assaulting children while acting in his capacity as a doctor in the Indian Health Service (IHS). Weber was eventually convicted in U.S. District Court in Montana and South Dakota and now resides in federal prison.
The First Lady opened Thursday’s session by welcoming participants and thanking them for their work on behalf of the well-being of children and noted that “strong Native American communities are strong American communities.”
Following the First Lady’s remarks, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores, co-chair of the task force, shared an overview of the task force findings.
“The President’s creation of this task force transcends politics. The idea of protecting children is not just a moral obligation, it is a righteous one,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores. “The mission he gave us was about government accountability to the people, especially a group of people who historically have been marginalized. We were directed to ask the tough questions and to follow where ever the evidence may lead.”
The Task Force traveled throughout Indian country over a four month period, including visits to Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, and South Dakota where the group interviewed healthcare professionals, Native American citizens, tribal leaders, sexual assault experts, tribal school administrators, and teachers.
“The Task Force found dedicated employees for the IHS who were frustrated by institutional inefficiency, bureaucratic red tape, and a lack of clarity when it came to policies that pertain to the reporting of suspected physical and sexual abuse of children.
There were decades of systemic institutional problems that led to an environment where a predatory pedophile could take advantage of government inefficiencies and confusion to sexually abuse children,” U.S. Attorney Shores said.
The task force found that not only did IHS need more uniform policies and training that apply to the reporting of child sex abuse, but that there were larger problems, like IHS’s difficulty in recruiting and training top health professionals and in properly vetting them through a credentialing and licensing committee. When a doctor’s background appeared problematic, licensing committees would often accept the doctor into their hospital because of the overwhelming need to fill the position.
Listed in the report were fundamental and longstanding deficiencies at IHS that included:
• Employees not understanding child abuse reporting obligations;
• Inadequate training of employees regarding child sexual abuse reporting;
• Confusing policies, procedures, and jurisdictional issues when reporting suspected child abuse;
• Systemic issues of low-morale, lack of leadership, and inability to recruit and retain enough qualified healthcare professionals; and
• Deficiencies in verifying and credentialing processes.
Recommendations were presented in the report as collective guidance to provide greater protection to Native American children in IHS. The Task Force made ten recommendations regarding policy, process, and culture change:
I. Require annual, in-person, standardized training of IHS employees conducted by instructors with law enforcement and/or child welfare experience.
II. Make reporting of child abuse easier and more streamlined by creating and publicizing a centralized child abuse hotline.
III. The Director should establish policies and procedures pertaining to allegations of child sexual abuse.
IV. Withhold retiree pay and benefits for civil service employees and USPHS Commissioned Corps officers convicted of sexual exploitation crimes against children.
V. Designate all Federal employees, contractors, and volunteers at Federal facilities, including IHS, as mandatory reporters for reasonable suspicion of child abuse.
VI. IHS should explore the viability and benefits of expanded use of telemedicine.
VII. Bolster recruitment and retention of quality of healthcare professionals.
VIII. Develop and implement a uniform credentialing and privileging policy.
IX. The Secretary of HHS should commission an independent review of USPHS Commissioned Corps management practices within 180 days of this report.
X. Recommend that the President task the Secretary of HHS with following up on the Task Force’s recommendations, including legislative or other actions, every ninety days until implemented.
Recommendations included elevating the Director of IHS to Assistant Secretary of Indian Health within the Department of Health and Human Services. The reported stated that the predominately symbolic change could increase agency morale and would provide parity within the Department of the Interior, which has an Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The task force noted that Tribes had advocated for this change for years. The report also urged Congress to create a way for IHS to reclassify some jobs so the agency could offer better benefits to recruits. The report also recommended that convicted child sex offenders be denied federal pensions.
Task Force Members Include:
Joseph Grogan, Former Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, Co-Chair
Trent Shores, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, Co-Chair and member of the Choctaw Nation
Shannon Bears Cozzoni, Tribal Liaison and Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma
Bo Leach, SE Region Agent in Charge, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Justice Services, Branch of Criminal Investigations and member of the Choctaw Nation
Stephanie Knapp, MSW, LCSW, Child/Adolescent Forensic Interviewer, Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Office for Victims Assistance, Child Victim Services Unit
Caitlin A. Hall, MD, FAAP, Clinical Director/Pediatrician, Dzilth-na-o-dith-hle Health Center, Indian Health Service
Farnoosh Faezi-Marian, Program Examiner, Office of Management and Budget