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Indian Health Service Implementing Reforms In Wake Of Ex-doctor's Prison Sentence

FRONTLINE and The Wall Street Journal investigate a pediatrician accused of sexually abusing Native American boys for years. This photograph was taken on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana.
Mike Shum
Wall Street Journal/FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE and The Wall Street Journal investigated a pediatrician accused of sexually abusing Native American boys for years. This photograph was taken on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana.

In January, former Indian Health Service Doctor Stanley Weber was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sexually abusing boys on the Blackfeet reservation. The IHS has instituted new policies to try to prevent similar abuse in the future, but at least one expert is skeptical of the agency’s actions.

When Frontline and the Wall Street Journal broke the story about former IHS doctor Stanley Weber, who abused boys in Montana and is charged with doing the same on a South Dakota reservation over his 30 year career, it raised questions about systemic issues within IHS when it comes to properly reporting and investigating allegations of sexual abuse by its employees.

Bryce Redgrave, Billings area director for IHS, said the agency is in the midst of an audit by an independent third party, which will wrap up in November. The audit aims to determine if IHS followed its policies, procedures and laws during doctor Weber’s time with the agency, from 1986 to 2016.

“That’s going to be a retrospective look at our organization and moving forward, we’ll gain that information to make improvements,” he said.

Marci Hamilton questions the motives behind the audit.  Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is CEO of ChildUSA, a thinktank focused on policies protecting children from sexual abuse.

“If an auditor is coming in for the purpose of solely finding the best pathways to protect children, then that can be a positive development,” she explained. “If however, they’re coming in really for the purpose of protecting the liabilities of the organization and they’re not going to be transparent and public with everything they find, that’s just another way of perpetuating the problem.”

Hamilton said IHS also needs to evaluate the effectiveness of other changes it’s making, like the child sexual abuse reporting policy it’s currently rolling out. The policy, which was implemented earlier this year, aims to make sure all of IHS’ roughly 15,000 employees know the various ways they can report suspected sexual abuse of children. IHS recently announced mandated training on the policy.

Redgrave said he’s already taken it.

“It provides indicators of abuse, warning signs, organizational safeguards that we all need to consider,” he added. “A good part that I like about the policy is that there’s safeguards for retaliation against [employees] for reporting something that they should.”

Something new, Redgrave said, is that the policy extends to contract providers and volunteers as well. It also calls for the Office of the Inspector General and local authorities to investigate all allegations of abuse.

“Patient protection is the most important element there. If there’s allegations against a provider, we will take swift action to remove them from the healthcare setting and make sure our patients are protected,” Redgrave said.

But ChildUSA’s Marci Hamilton said the policy has a major pitfall.

It allows providers to begin caring for patients before their background check is completed so long as they’re in sight of supervisors or with a vetted chaperone.

“It is foolish to let anybody come in if their background check is not completed. That is just an invitation to individuals who will harm children to apply for the job and take it for as long as they can,” she argued.

Hamilton said both U.S. government agencies and private organizations are still in the wild west days of systematically responding to sexual abuse, and it’s difficult to address chronic underlying issues that lead to problems -- like in IHS’ case: staffing shortages that can push facilities to keep problematic providers around.

“There needs to be constant monitoring to see how successful the changes have been,” Hamilton said. “These kind of changes in which you’ve got to change the fundamental attitude – the protection of the organization and the adults versus the protection of the children – that takes a while, and it’s not going to happen overnight by a longshot.”

IHS said it will share results from its third-party audit this fall with tribal partners and the public, quote, “in accordance with federal law.”

The Office of the Inspector General and a Presidential Task Force are also evaluating current policies and procedures and will provide recommendations to IHS for future measures.

Aaron Bolton is Montana Public Radio's Flathead Valley reporter.
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