After meeting with the head of the Indian Health Service last month to learn what steps it's taking in the wake of a former doctor being convicted of child sexual abuse years after tribal members reported him to the IHS, Lydia Bear Killer said she wants to see the agency help the victims.
"They need to pump money, resources" to victims and their families," said Bear Killer, a representative of the Pass Creek District in the Oglala Sioux Tribe government. She said she's worried that victims will become perpetrators themselves if they don't receive counseling.
The IHS said it encourages any victim to reach out so they can receive free mental health services, but the agency itself won't contact individual victims due to privacy concerns.
"We recognize the strength and courage it takes for any victim to come forward. In the interest of privacy, the IHS has not reached out directly as an agency to the specific survivors in this situation," spokesman Joshua Barnett said in an email.
Many victims of Stanley Patrick Weber — who awaits trial in Rapid City regarding allegations that he sexually abused boys on the Pine Ridge Reservation after being found guilty of such crimes on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana — are unknown or were anonymously named in court records and media reports. But others have been publicly identified. Barnett did not give a direct response when asked why IHS can't reach out to specific survivors the agency may know about, or those already known to the public.
"Protecting the privacy of our patients is a top priority for the Indian Health Service," Barnett said. "Accordingly, IHS will not disclose conversations or other information involving patients and their mental health or other services provided by IHS."
The March meeting between the OST tribal council and IHS staff — which included Michael Weahkee, principal deputy director — followed a similar meeting Weahkee had with leaders of the Blackfeet Nation. The meeting in Pine Ridge was closed to the public, and Weahkee declined to be interviewed by the Journal for this story.
"They were trying to smooth over this issue and so we asked for what the plans are. What's the aftermath of all these victims?" Bear Killer said.
She said the IHS explained its updated mandatory reporting law and a whistleblower policy meant to protect people from reporting suspected child abuse.
"I still feel like that IHS, they need to be held accountable for everything that happened," Bear Killer said. "They need to sit down with our people," not just the tribal council.
There are three current and planned investigations into the IHS. A White House task force is investigating how Weber was able to sexually assault children in his care and how to prevent future abuse, while the Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the effectiveness of the actions IHS has already taken. Finally, the IHS is hiring an independent contractor to review whether laws and policies were followed in the past and what future improvements it can make.
The independent investigation will "determine where the missed opportunities took place" and if anyone should be held accountable in how the IHS handled complaints against Weber, Weahkee said at a March 12 Senate Indian Affairs hearing.
Weahkee testified that the inquiry will determine what relevant policies the agency had at the time and whether they were followed. "If not, where (had) the breakdowns occurred, who should be held accountable for those policies not being put into place."
He said the end goal is to make sure the IHS has correct policies and a "culture of accountability."
Weber's victims can take advantage of the agency's free mental health services, Barnett said. "We encourage anyone who was affected by this terrible crime, or any victim of sexual assault, to seek counseling services if they so desire."
If someone needs specialized mental health services not provided by the IHS, Barnett said, the agency will connect them with an outside provider and cover the cost.
Anyone can report abuse to the IHS hotline at 301-443-0658 and receive immediate guidance by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 800-656-4673, Barnett said.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at email@example.com.