A White House task force on Thursday called for extensive changes in the Indian Health Service to protect children from abuse at the agency that oversees care for 2.6 million Native Americans in 37 states.
Task force members told first lady Melania Trump in a meeting that IHS employees are frustrated by institutional inefficiencies, red tape and a lack of reporting of chronic child abuse.
“Although many IHS employees knew they had ‘some sort’ of duty to report, they were unaware of what they were to report, when they were to report, to whom they were to report, or how to report,” the task force said in its findings.
IHS Director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee said that the agency had cooperated fully with the task force’s investigation, and that the agency acknowledges “there is always room for improvement.”
“Sexual assault and abuse will not be tolerated in the Indian Health Service,” he said.
Mrs. Trump praised the task force’s efforts, saying “I know that this work will help to keep children safe.”
“Systematic problems put children at risk,” she said, adding that Native American children, like all children, deserve to live in safe, nurturing environments.
Santee Lewis of the Navajo Nation greeted the room in Navajo, and said protecting Native American children requires more work, especially considering that many of them live in a system that does not necessarily lead to the same opportunities that non-Native American children enjoy.
President Trump created the task force in March 2019 after an investigation by The Wall Street Journal and Frontline disclosed the IHS had mishandled the case of a pediatrician who sexually abused patients on Native American reservations for two decades.
Among the task force’s recommendations is to provide better training for staff on how to handle suspected child abuse, publicizing a child-abuse hotline for more streamlined reporting of cases, and implementing a “zero tolerance” policy for failure to report child-abuse cases.