First Lady Melania Trump participated in a White House Task Force on Thursday on protecting Native American Children in the Indian Health Service System (IHS).
“One of the pillars of my ‘Be Best’ initiative is children’s well-being,” Melania said in her opening remarks. “And when I look around this room, I see so many people who have made the well-being of children their life’s work. As you know, the Indian Health Service is an important part of America’s healthcare. And I know that many IHS stuff staff are passionate about their mission, and the communities they serve.”
“However, systematic problems can put children at risk and I share the president’s commitment to making sure the Indian Health Service uses best practices to keep children safe,” she added. “Native American children, like all children, deserve to grow up in a safe, supportive, nurturing environment.”
President Trump formed the Task Force in March 2019 in response to systemic breakdowns within IHS, including one that failed to stop a predatory pediatrician who sexually abused patients on the Native American reservations as a doctor for nearly two decades.
An investigation by The Wall Street Journal and Frontline disclosed that IHS mishandled the pediatrician case, repeatedly missed or ignored warning signs tried to silence whistleblowers, and allowed Mr. Weber to continue treating children despite the suspicions of colleagues up and down the chain of command. After a tribal prosecutor outside of the IHS finally investigated the pediatrician, he was indicted in 2017 and 2018 for sexually assaulting six patients in Montana and South Dakota and was convicted in September 2018 and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The Task Force is tasked to develop policy recommendations and best practices to protect Native American children and to deter, mitigate, and respond to any allegations of future child sexual abuse in the IHS. Such recommendations are to provide better training for staff on how to handle suspected child abuse, publicizing a child-abuse hotline for more streamlined reporting of cases, and implementing a “zero-tolerance” policy for failure to report child-abuse cases.
The group consists of seven federal officials, including task force chairman and the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma Trent Shores. One of its members is an IHS pediatrician and administrator from a clinic of the Navajo Nation. They interviewed numerous IHS employees at all levels of the organization and from sites across the country
During the briefing, the task force released its report with recommendations and findings and told Melania that IHS employees are frustrated by institutional inefficiencies, red tape, and a lack of reporting of chronic child abuse. In its critical report, it found that IHS staff were generally unaware of their mandatory reporting obligations under federal law to report suspected child sexual abuse, and staff “expressed significant confusion” among the interplay state, Federal, and tribal jurisdictions to report the suspected child abuse to who exactly, whether it would be the law enforcement or child welfare agency.
“What we learned was the Indian health Service needed more uniforms policies that applied to the reporting of child sexual abuse. That they needed to institute better and more frequent training of their employees to ensure that their employees understood what their reporting obligations were,” Shores said.
Shores also brought IHS significant challenges in recruiting and retaining quality health care professionals and found that the hiring committees hire professionals with problematic work histories without doing a thorough background and credentialing check, citing prioritization to fill vacant positions.
“We realized that there were larger systemic problems like IHS’s ability to recruit and retain top healthcare professionals and to properly vet them through a credentialing and licensing committee,” Shores said. “We sadly learned that there were times when even though a doctor’s background appeared problematic, that a licensing committee would still accept them into their hospital and into their community because of the overwhelming need.”
The report called for Congress to pass new laws, including one requiring all federal employees to report any suspicions of sex abuse to law enforcement, which would replace several narrower laws. It also asked Congress to clear the way for IHS to reclassify some jobs so the agency could offer better benefits to recruits, and called for action to strip child-sex offenders of federal pensions.
After hearing from members of the Task Force who shared their input and their recommendations for the next steps going forward, Melania closed the briefing by emphasizing the need to children to feel safe to speak up about abuse and the importance for children to feel secure along with knowing that their voices will be heard.
“I know that this work will help to keep children safe. I’m so glad that you have taken the time to work hand in hand with tribal leaders during this process and to listen to their input,” Melania said. “I know that this Administration inherited many of these problems, but I am very proud that you are still working to protect children to prevent such abuse from happening again, or if and when it does, to immediately mitigate it. I am sure that the men and women of the Indian Health Service share that goal, and I look forward to following up to ensure that they have the training and resources they need to provide the finest possible care to Native American communities.”
She also shared that the Cherokee Nation has invited her to visit the tribe and to see its advances in health care for Natives.
“We invite First Lady Melania Trump to tour our state-of-the-art Outpatient Health Center and first medical school on tribal land in the nation, which is wrapping up construction in Tahlequah,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. in a statement. “Anytime we can showcase that tribal nations are thriving and strong, doing good work on behalf of children and our communities, we welcome the opportunity with open arms.”
There is no word yet on when exactly the First Lady will visit.
Indian Health System (IHS) is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services who are responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. The IHS provides medical care for 2.3 million Native Americans, many of whom have no other access to health care.
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