In January in Great Falls, Stanley Weber, a former Indian Health Service pediatrician who worked on the Blackfeet Reservation in the 1990s was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sexually abusing boys in his care.
Tonight on MontanaPBS, the investigative news program "Frontline" will spend an hour detailing Weber’s story, and why it was allowed to go on for more than 20 years.
Joining us now is Chris Weaver, a Wall Street Journal reporter who worked with "Frontline" on the story.
Eric Whitney: Chris Weaver, thank you for joining us on Montana Public Radio.
Chris Weaver: A pleasure to be here.
EW: Tell me who Dr. Weber was and how he came to live in Browning.
CW: Dr. Weber was a physician, a longtime physician for the Indian Health Service, and he got his start in medicine as a Green Beret medic in the 1970s. He went to medical school in North Dakota where he's from. And as soon as he finished a pediatric residency, joined the Indian Health Service. First in Ada, Oklahoma, and then he bounced to a site in New Mexico and finally to Browning where he worked at the Blackfeet community hospital for three years in the mid-1990s.
EW: It sounds like the IHS had been without a pediatrician in Browning for a while. What was the community's initial response when Dr. Weber arrived?
CW: The Indian Health Service has an endemic problem with trying to fill slots for physicians. That was a particularly difficult slot and it had been a while since they'd had it filled. And if you want to run a hospital that has all the regulatory clearances that you need to do so, you have to have a pediatrician working there. So, you know, from that vantage point he seemed I think at first to folks there like quite a get.
EW: And it sounds like initially people were happy that he was there and the way he operated?
CW: The CEO told us that, you know, she welcomed that. It was great. It was great to find somebody relatively young, relatively easy-going, you know, who wanted to be involved in that kind of thing and who seemed to want to do something for the community.
EW: It sounds like that was a good thing but it didn't take very long for some red flags to pop up, right?
CW: No. Almost from the get-go people were starting to sound the alarm. You know first with kind of whispers and whistles and then finally with blaring sirens towards the end.
EW: There were also a couple of medical professionals there, a psychiatrist and someone who works in mental health. Can you tell me what they did and how their concerns were or were not addressed?
CW: Yeah. So that's Dan and Becky Foster and their concerns were, to put it bluntly, that the pediatrician at the hospital where they were all working might be molesting kids. And you know Dan says that he put that forward to his supervisor at the time, the CEO of the hospital Mary Ellen LaFromboise, and she heard him out and he says that he also confronted Dr. Weber and that, you know, Dr. Weber's response was to deny it and then to avoid crossing paths with Dan Foster. After that it turned out that the Fosters would intersect with Dr. Weber again years later, still working for the Indian Health Service, but on a different reservation.
EW: When people watch this episode of "Frontline" they'll see how Indian Health Service officials in Browning handled these accusations. But tell me about how Dr. Weber came to leave Browning.
CW: Well we heard the story from a few different vantage points, but the long and short of it is that somebody beat up Dr. Weber because one of their relatives was staying the night at his house, an underage boy. And the incident sort of catalyzed this wider range of concerns about him at the hospital and on the Reservation such that the CEO of the facility decided something had to be done.
So she reported it up the chain of command and a regional manager for the Indian Health Service in Billings took charge. That guy sent the then-medical director of the Browning hospital back to Browning with instructions to get rid of Dr. Weber. To get him out of the hospital and off the Reservation. And he did. But instead of firing him, or starting some kind of an investigation, the U.S. Indian Health Service basically just transferred him to another reservation, to another hospital, where he would go on for another 21 years treating kids, this time in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
EW: Suffice to say the abusive behavior observed in Browning seemed to continue there. How did the Indian Health Service handle that and did they take appropriate action?
CW: Yeah I mean a trail of allegations followed him from his days in Browning all the way through May of 2016 when he resigned from the agency very abruptly and in the face of a federal investigation. You know, the way that the Indian Health Service handled an ongoing slate of warnings and concerns and whistleblower accusations and even parents' complaints about Dr. Weber, was to either initiate investigations that never went anywhere, to do nothing in some cases, and perhaps at the worst, to basically punish a whistleblower who raised credible complaints about the doctor.
They had, in our reporting and as the film will show, you know five, six, more perhaps, opportunities to do something about this. And you know, somehow they just never quite managed to get the job done. Individual managers would find reasons to either point the finger up or down the chain of command and say someone else was responsible and not them, or hand it over, you know, to law enforcement and sort of wait till they may or may not come back with something. You know people kind of applied the same bar that you see in the criminal justice system- that absent incontrovertible proof, somebody is innocent, right- to the calculation of whether to give this guy a job.
EW: I wanted to ask about that. One of Dr. Weber's victims in the film describes how he exited an exam room of Dr. Weber's one time and he saw other medical staff at this facility looking at him and he knew that they knew something wrong was happening but they didn't say anything. Why didn't more of Dr. Weber's colleagues, people that he worked with in these health facilities, speak up?
CW: Yeah. The young man that you're talking about, the guy we're calling Paul, just by his first name to protect his privacy, and one of the guys that Paul said you know was was among those who he thought, you know, "knew something was up" was a guy named Bill Pourier who was the CEO of the hospital for a number of years. And Mr. Pourier spoke to us as well. And the reason that he gave was basically that he was afraid of his own employer. He thought that if he rattled the cage too much he might get fired or suspended or punished himself for stirring things up. And, as he put it, he couldn't afford to lose his job at the time so he let the matter drop.
EW: Ultimately who do you think is responsible or needs to be held accountable for Dr. Weber being allowed to practice and apparently abuse children for more than two decades in the Indian Health Service system?
CW: I think it's complicated. I think that you know there's people all the way up and down the Indian Health Service's hierarchy who could have done more, or perhaps should have done more in some cases. I also think that there's structural problems at the agency that make it very difficult to fulfill its mandate of providing health services in these remote reservations, and that, you know, the agency and, you know, its overseers in the Federal Health Department and Congress, you know, could do more to address those as well because it's hard to find doctors willing to work in those environments. And I think as a result many leaders in the agency have described this sort of culture of making compromises about providers and managers even when there's warning flags raised about their conduct, just out of the absolute need to keep their facilities open. Since many people living on these reservations have almost no other access to health care at all.
EW: Chris Weaver thanks so much for joining us on Montana Public Radio.
CW: Yeah, my pleasure.
The "FRONTLINE" and Wall Street Journal joint investigation, "Predator on the Reservation," premieres Tuesday, February 12 at 10/9c on PBS stations and online at wsj.org/frontline and pbs.org/frontline.”