WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is convening a task force to address the issue of child sexual abuse in the Indian Health Service (IHS), senior administration officials said Tuesday.
“The goal is to make recommendations to the president to ensure this will never happen again and that children visiting IHS facilities will be protected, and to ensure workers at these facilities will understand and know what their responsibilities and requirements are when they know or suspect abuse is occurring,” a senior administration official said on a phone call with reporters.
The task force will include a team of employees who “have a diverse background and skill set,” the official said; members will include officials from the IHS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI, and the Office of Management and Budget. They will “come from a background that is inclusive of knowledge and experience of Indian Country and people who have dedicated large portions of their career to Indian Country,” he added. The task force will be called the Presidential Task Force on Protecting Native American Children in the Indian Health System.
The announcement comes in the wake of the January sentencing of Stanley Patrick Weber, MD, in which he received 18 years in prison for molesting several Native American boys that were his patients at the IHS more than 20 years ago. He also faces charges in South Dakota for alleged sexual abuse incidents occurring on an Indian reservation there from 1998 through 2011. Weber left the IHS in 2016.
“We’re looking to make a number of policy recommendations out of this,” a second senior administration official said. He noted that although other investigations into the matter are reportedly ongoing, “We will not be limited by those … We will be able to draw on resources through the Executive Office of the President and other agencies as well.”
“Speaking from the perspective of the White House, we believe this is exactly the type of situation this president is elected to solve,” he said. “It’s gone on for 20 years and transcended Republican and Democratic administrations; it’s not a Republic or Democratic issue — this is a systemic failure. The people responsible for taking care of American citizens abused that trust and [we need to] make sure this never happens again.”
The task force is planning to have its first meeting in the next couple of weeks, the first official said. “We’re also hoping to make a series of recommendations in short order.” As for how long the task force will be active, “we’re not going to be limited in time,” he said. “The goal is to spend as much time as we need.” He added that the group’s responsibilities will be clearly delineated. “The goal is not to boil the ocean and solve every problem in Indian Country; we want to stay focused on systemic failures [in the IHS].”
Money for the task force primarily will be provided by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), although “there could be incidental [expenses] and supplemental resources from peoples’ home agencies,” the official told MedPage Today. “I don’t expect this to be a terribly expensive endeavor … The bulk of the expense is just going to be in travel and should not be anything terribly expensive.”
The task force “is not looking to build a criminal case to prove anybody guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; [instead], we’re looking at what happened, the fact that this doctor already was convicted in federal court in Montana by the U.S. attorney’s office there,” he added. “We want to identify how this was allowed to happen and what can we put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again. That process we anticipate will, of course, include engagement with Indian Country, tribal communities, and leadership, especially in Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, where Dr. Weber worked at IHS facilities.”
HHS welcomes the establishment of the task force, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement, noting that it was “part of ongoing efforts by HHS and IHS to protect American Indian and Alaska Native children and to investigate and prevent the kind of horrific, unacceptable abuses perpetrated by [Weber].”
“IHS continues to update its procedures and policies to prevent and stop abuse, which will be assessed by an outside, independent contractor and will be the subject of a separate review by HHS’s Office of Inspector General,” he said. “Abuse in IHS facilities is appalling, intolerable, and a betrayal of all of the American Indians and Alaska Natives who rely on the IHS for care, as well as to the dedicated IHS employees who provide that care.”
The task force “will complement the actions already taken and planned by IHS to protect our patients and communities,” IHS Principal Deputy Director Michael Weahkee said in a statement. “I sincerely regret that children were victimized by those entrusted to care for them. I have made ensuring patient protection one of my highest priorities and IHS has taken aggressive action over the last year.”
“Sexual assault and abuse will not be tolerated in the Indian Health Service,” he continued. “New professional standards and stronger requirements for IHS employees to report suspected sexual abuse and exploitation of children have been put into place. In addition, we have established guidelines for identifying and responding to suspected child maltreatment, and updated guidance on appropriately incorporating trauma informed care in service delivery to better address violence and victimization.”