Investigation continues into Cheyenne River program

Kay Humphrey
3/14/01

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - No decision has been made on the status of a family violence prevention program on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

Officials at the Inspector General's Office are investigating allegations of financial abuse which stemmed from the payment of a $180 voucher and allegations by the program's former director that tribal officials attempted to violate the confidentiality of the clients served by the program.

Janet Collins, the program's former director, and two employees along with a group of supporters refused to leave the building Jan. 26 in an effort they said was to protect client records. Tribal officials requested disclosure of client numbers and a list of the names of the clients served by the program in a memo dated one day prior to the occupation.

The tribal treasurer said she asked for the documents to check the list against clients served by other family service programs to make certain vendors weren't receiving double payments. The memo also said clients accessing the family violence protection services might be eligible for other grant and general fund programs.

Collins said she was willing to share financial records, but wasn't willing to disclose the names of service recipients.

During the short-lived occupation, Collins said she shredded a list with the names of the clients to keep them out of the hands of tribal officials, fearing the information might place a client at risk.

Collins requested a restraining order from tribal court Jan. 31 to prevent officials from seizing the records. Although the order was issued, police arrested Collins and four other women on trespassing charges. Collins and her two co-workers were charged with trespassing. Each was released on a $50 personal recognizance bond. Collins lost her job and her co-workers were reprimanded for their actions.

Although the order was served, Collins said it was rescinded after tribal officials defended their actions under sovereign immunity.

She must await completion of a federal investigation before she knows if there will be federal charges in connection with the event.

Bill Reilly, manager for the Family Violence Protective Services grant program in Washington, D.C., the agency which oversees the Cheyenne River program, said the fate of the program rests with the conclusion drawn from the federal investigation.

"One of the things we hold very seriously in our program is confidentiality of service records. That is very serious. I tried to make that point clear," Reilly said.

"I'm not convinced because of this one incident they needed the program files. That's a fishing trip. The names were unnecessary. That's not the way we run that program," he said.

"We took a position on the confidentiality of service records that seemed to cause celebrity. ... I have been in communication with the Office of the Inspector General in South Dakota. I'm hoping to find out specifically what happened. Based on what they find out, we're going to make a decision about the program. My sense is that our need and our requirements for confidentiality are not well understood and there may be a systematic breakdown."

Reilly said it was appropriate for the tribe to ask for an accounting of expenditures, but the request for the disclosure of identities wasn't merited.

"You really didn't need that. Somebody made an issue about a client double dipping. There's no income eligibility for the program," he said.

"If the tribe has a program where people are qualified based on income and they also then come around to the program that Janet was running, that is a systematic problem. It doesn't require people to look at the list of who we give service to. If they suspect that someone had somehow worked their system, then you look at that person and leave it to the director to straighten it out or change it."

Reilly said clients tapping into the family violence prevention program wouldn't be turned away even if they had received services from other programs.

"Our problem might have been that voucher. Janet may have thought that indeed in order to keep somebody safe, it was the only thing she could do."

Reilly supervisor said he didn't intervene because he was assured the tribal officials and its former director would work things out.

"I was hoping they could work this out locally,"

Since the tribe is the grantee, it has control over the hiring of its staff, Reilly said, but he suggested the leadership of such programs shouldn't be subject to interference and the program shouldn't be shut down if there are abuses as the result of people accessing other programs.

"If you are going to hire a person to run a program, you have to somehow rely on that person's integrity that what they are doing is indeed how that program should be run. If that person makes a mistake, do we then trash the program or trash the entire staff for that? Or, do we look at your system and see what you are doing to see if you inviting some sort of abuse."

For now the decision of the status of program is on hold.

"We haven't suspended the program and we have not said anything about that to them. "

Reilly called the entire incident an overreaction.

"You look at the amount of the voucher and you ask why ... ?" He said he assumed " they were trying to avert a situation. I have no reason to doubt that until I'm told differently. This thing just blew up."

Reilly said his office funds about 170 and there probably are situations where questions are raised about services and clients. "I imagine it isn't an easy thing for tribal management to sort of go along with the judgment of the directors of these programs, but some how they have worked it out." He added it even may not be an easy thing to do "and maybe somebody gives up the perceived power. ... I assumed the folks at Eagle Butte were going to work it out."

Reilly said the tribe was supposed to submit a proposal with a plan for the continued operation of the program, but he had not yet received it.

While Reilly suggested the investigation would provide information as early this week, Collins said federal investigators suggested it might take far longer for them to complete the effort.

"That's unrealistic. It could be months. They told me it could it would be May before they come back with a decision," Collins said.

The coordinator of a similar program which serves American Indians in Nevada said her program faces scrutiny and pressures to release financial information to justify the expenditures of its program, but the program has been successful in protecting client's identities.

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