Task force: Indian Health Service still needs to improve child sexual abuse prevention

July 28, 2020
In The News

A presidential task force says the Indian Health Service still needs to improve its child sexual abuse prevention methods after investigating the “institutional and systemic breakdown that failed to prevent and stop” a pediatrician from sexually abusing children on the Pine Ridge Reservation and in Montana for decades.

The task force — which visited Rapid City, the Pine Ridge Reservation and Sioux Falls as part of its investigation — said the “vast majority” of IHS employees are dedicated public servants, according to a report released last week. But it found “fundamental and longstanding deficiencies” in preventing child sexual abuse at the systemic and institutional level.

President Donald Trump formed the task force in March 2019 after a Wall Street Journal/Frontline investigation showed that accusations about Stanley Patrick Weber sexually abusing boys circulated for decades among his co-workers, patients and the wider community when he worked at the Pine Ridge and Browning, Montana IHS hospitals. But those complaints were either ignored and not investigated or resulted in investigations that cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Weber, 71, was found guilty in 2018 and 2019 of sexually abusing six boys during federal trials in Rapid City and Montana. The successful investigation began after an Oglala Sioux Attorney General and a prosecutor identified a victim and passed his name to federal investigators, according to the WSJ/Frontline investigation. 

Weber was removed from the Pennington County Jail’s roster soon after he was given five life sentences. It’s unclear where he was housed before he recently arrived at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City. He will stay there until he’s assigned a permanent prison facility.

The task force visited South Dakota and Montana but also Oklahoma and New Mexico, where Weber previously worked. The task force interviewed tribal leaders, Native American citizens, health care professionals, law enforcement, sexual assault experts and others.

One of the interviewees was Mark Butterbrodt, a former pediatrician at the Pine Ridge IHS who tried to report Weber’s behavior over the years.
 
The 70-year-old Martin resident said he was “really struck by the seriousness of the panel” when they interviewed him at the federal building in Rapid City.

He said he hopes the report leads to real changes but is afraid implementation will not be a priority due to coronavirus and the upcoming elections.

Butterbrodt — who serves as the medical director of the Oglala Sioux nursing home and helps the tribe with coronavirus testing — said the Pine Ridge IHS now has good leadership and recently regained Medicare/Medicaid accreditation

Findings, recommendations 

The task force found IHS doesn't have a uniform process for reporting child abuse allegations. Each facility had a different form and some lacked key questions, which hampered investigations. The IHS also has no way to search allegations involving the same victim or perpetrator, which makes it difficult to identify an abuser and may allow them to be transferred to another facility. 

While many IHS staff members know they must report child sexual abuse, they didn’t know what, when, how and to whom to report it to. Tribal law enforcement and child welfare agencies staff often failed to coordinate with each other and the FBI to ensure the report was investigated, and were reluctant in investigating reports of manipulative behavior, such as grooming. This reluctance discouraged IHS staff from reporting possible child abuse cases.

While IHS has created a new child sexual abuse policy, it didn't implement it well. For example, few facilities posted required signage informing people about how to report abuse. It also found reporting duties are confusingly described among multiple policies and are sometimes inconsistent with federal law.

Licensing committees often accept doctors with problematic backgrounds due to the need to fill vacancies, the task force found.

The task force says the IHS should:

  • Implement uniform child abuse reporting policies and forms;
  • Create uniform administrative procedures that suspends credentials during investigations and prevents the employee from transferring facilities;
  • Have law enforcement and/or child welfare experts conduct annual in-person training on signs of abuse and how to report it;
  • Create a hotline and website where people can report child abuse; 
  • Study whether telemedicine can be used for sexual abuse exams; 
  • Withhold pay and benefits for civil service employees convicted of child sexual abuse.
Pension, investigations
 
The last recommendation is inspired by the fact that Weber is still receiving a $100,000 yearly pension. The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps said last year that it would review whether to end his pension but declined last week to say whether the agency has begun its review or made any decision, according to a July 23 Frontline story. South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson recently wrote to federal officials asking them to make the agency review and revoke Weber's pension.
 
The IHS says it wants Weber's pension revoked and there’s currently a bill in Congress that would deny pensions to him and any other federal employee convicted of child sex abuse.

The head of the IHS says it will use the task force report to improve its policies and that it has already requested legislation regarding recommendations that require Congressional action. 

The report is one of at least five federal investigations into IHS’s policies and handling of Weber, Frontline says. The Journal and other outlets requested to see a report commissioned by the IHS but the agency says confidential information makes it private. The WSJ and New York Times are suing for that report to be released.

“That has the really damning stuff,” Butterbrodt said.

He said retired U.S. Marshals who conducted the investigation interviewed him for three hours and had access to IHS emails, phone calls and documents related to Weber.