Published: July 30, 2012
A federal health services psychologist who told superiors that an American Indian tribe was ignoring widespread child abuse on a North Dakota reservation has been reprimanded and reassigned, according to federal officials and documents.
The psychologist, Michael R. Tilus, director of behavioral health at the Spirit Lake Health Center on the Spirit Lake Indian reservation, describes himself as a whistle-blower. He wrote in an e-mail to state and federal health officials this spring about an “epidemic” of child abuse on Spirit Lake, which is in a remote area of northeastern North Dakota.
Among the recipients were officials with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service, which oversee most health care on Spirit Lake.
Dr. Tilus wrote in the e-mail that he had lost confidence in the ability of tribal leadership to protect children.
Federal health officials responded this month by issuing a letter of reprimand to Dr. Tilus, rescinding a scheduled promotion, and transferring him to the agency’s regional headquarters in South Dakota.
The Spirit Lake reservation has been buffeted by accusations of child abuse and neglect during the past 15 months.
This month, a 2-month-old girl died there after tribal officials had received warnings of child abuse, according to a federal official, and in May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were sexually assaulted before being stabbed to death and left under a mattress. Their bloody bodies were discovered several days later. A 19-year-old man was arrested and charged in the killings.
Because of myriad problems detected in the tribe’s social service system, the State of North Dakota suspended financing this year for tribal children in foster care.
Although Dr. Tilus wrote the e-mail to superiors in April, he did not receive the reprimand until after portions of his e-mail were quoted in a July 7 article in The New York Times about child abuse on Spirit Lake.
Mark Weber, a Health and Human Services Department spokesman, declined to say whether Dr. Tilus’s punishment had been in retaliation for sending the e-mail.
The agency refused to make Dr. Tilus available for an interview.
But in the reprimand letter, which was obtained by The Times, Dr. Candelaria Martin, the department’s clinical director of medical staff at Spirit Lake, said Dr. Tilus’s dissemination of the e-mail to health and law enforcement officers outside his chain of command constituted “engaging in action and behavior of a dishonorable nature.”
Dr. Martin wrote that Dr. Tilus had brought discredit to the federal government’s public health services and had damaged relationships with the tribe, the Indian Health Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribe did not return a call seeking comment.
The reprimand bars Dr. Tilus, who has been in the Public Health Service for 10 years, from promotion for two years and could put his professional license in jeopardy. The letter is dated June 25, but Dr. Tilus wrote in a response to the department that he received it on July 13, six days after The Times article was published, and the same day both he and Dr. Martin signed the letter in acknowledgment of receipt.
Dr. Tilus also wrote in his response that he had consulted his direct supervisors about abuse on Spirit Lake over the course of several years but that his efforts had failed to curtail it, which he said led him to fear that some young victims would commit suicide.
“After significant thought and with great concern for the protection of my patients, I acted as a whistle-blower and made a lawful disclosure by raising my concerns about the health and safety of these abused children to more than just my direct supervisors, but to multiple appropriate agencies who could be intimately involved in resolving this public health crisis,” Dr. Tilus wrote. “This was more than just doing my job. Doing my job for five years had resulted in no agency action.”
Mr. Weber, the Health and Human Services spokesman, said: “The foremost concern of the department is the health and safety of the children of the Spirit Lake Tribe. We will work closely with tribal leaders, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and state officials to address abuse and neglect in the community. The department respects the need to protect individuals who speak out about issues regarding public health and safety, and will afford all applicable legal protections to those who do. We are reviewing all of the facts related to this matter.”
Dr. Tilus wrote that instead of being punished, he deserved whistle-blower protection under the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012, which was signed into law by President Obama this month. That law extends military whistle-blower safeguards to federal Public Health Service officers.
While Dr. Tilus is a federal Public Health Service officer, it is unclear whether his actions qualify him as a whistle-blower.
In an e-mail to superiors on Saturday, Dr. Tilus said he believed the agency was retaliating against him.
He said he planned to file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 31, 2012, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Psychologist Who Wrote Of Abuse Is Punished.
Posted by Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg at 8/01/2012
?Is There Any Explanation For This
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg