Government shutdown squeezes Northern Arapaho’s juvenile justice programBy Ron Feemster — October 15, 2013
The Northern Arapaho tribe’s juvenile probation office will run out of money on Friday if the federal government shutdown does not end. Money that is channeled through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribe is necessary to manage one of the largest juvenile caseloads in Wyoming, according to Aline Kitchin, juvenile probation supervisor for the Northern Arapaho tribe.
Eventually, the money will be reimbursed by the state Department of Family Services, but payments from the tribe, which in turn receives money from the furloughed Bureau of Indian Affairs, are necessary to keep the program open.
“We don’t have a travel budget at this point,” said Kitchin, who notes that the tribe has tried to rein in spending without curtailing programs. Probation officers are visiting clients and driving to court appearances in their own vehicles, with only the promise of mileage reimbursement when the shutdown ends and money begins to flow again.
But a new memo from the tribal office suggests that the pay period ending October 18 may be the last one until the federal government resolves the current funding impasse and reopens for business.
In an email to all tribal programs on Friday, October 11, the tribal office eliminated overtime pay, mileage reimbursement, vacation days and sick pay until the end of the week. It is not clear which, if any, programs will continue to operate after Friday.
“The tribe is going with the worst-case scenario,” said Mike Brown, a probation officer. “No one knows what is going to happen.”
Members of the Northern Arapaho Business Council were not available for comment late in the day on Monday.
“This really affects the kids,” said Angela McCann, a probation officer. “We step in when there are cases of neglect. If we don’t follow through on our cases during the shutdown, isn’t that also neglect?”
The probation officers are meeting with the judges in tribal court this week to determine what can be done to manage the cases that the court has already referred to the department, as well as to explore options for dealing with young people that may be sentenced to probation this week.
In a memo she sent to the judges and tribal prosecutors just hours after she received the email from the tribal office, Kitchin wrote: “We have a situation that needs an immediate action plan and collaboration with the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Court and staff.”
Kitchin has also called the offices of Sen. John Barrasso, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, state Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and state Sen. Bernadine Craft (D-Rock Springs).
“I let all of them know that we need their support,” she said. “We can’t do this on our own.”
The three probation officers on staff in the Arapahoe offices are concerned that they will not be able to maintain even the core services of the program, which include appearing in court with the clients, visiting families and juveniles at home or in school, administering urinalysis tests, and responding to calls from police and social service agencies. On Monday, Kitchin counted 47 youth on probation and 15 committed to treatment centers and other programs in three states.
“We can’t travel to the treatment centers either,” Kitchin said. “We have clients in treatment centers in Utah and Montana.” The staff makes monthly visits to the clients out of state and to facilities in Sheridan, Worland, Powell and Laramie.
Even before the shutdown, the department was beset with difficulties about how to detain juveniles. Without a local juvenile detention system, the tribe had sent its juvenile detainees to Busby, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. But over the summer, the department worked out a memorandum of understanding with Sweetwater County to house juveniles in the detention center there. This would shorten the travel time between court and detention center from six hours to about two hours one way.
But the MOU must be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which took no action on the issue for several months leading up to the shutdown. The proposal appears to be stuck in Albuquerque at the moment.
“The problem is definitely not on the Sweetwater County end,” said Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker. “We have a similar MOU with Sweetwater. We worked it out in a matter of days.”
Now, even during the shutdown, the short-staffed BIA police must drive juvenile offenders six hours to and from Montana for court appearances.
If federal funding is not restored and the juvenile probation department does not return to normal, the employees are willing to continue working with only the promise of back pay.
“This is not about us,” said McCann. “It’s not about the staff. We’ll get through this. We might have to rearrange our personal finances a little bit, but we are going to be fine. The issue is who is going to take care of the kids on our caseload.”
The staff’s willingness to keep working during a shutdown is not the whole story. In addition, there may be some serious, unresolved legal issues about how the probation officers maintain the authority to do their jobs, and how much protection they enjoy if a client complains or files a lawsuit.
The department wants reassurance from the tribal court and perhaps other authorities that officers have the legal standing to do their jobs. A probation officer, like a peace officer, cannot be personally sued in Wyoming. No one has explored the limits on immunity of probation officers working without pay during a government shutdown.
“And then we have to consider that we have a state contract,” Kitchin said. “If we default on our contract, what happens? Can the state hold the tribes liable?”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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