WASHINGTON – The director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) says the agency is supportive of employees who communicate with members of the U.S. Congress on problems involving the agency.
The encouragement of whistleblowers was made in a letter issued by IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux on August 2. The letter was addressed to Michael Tilus, a psychiatrist with the agency, who was reprimanded by his director, Candelaria Martin, in June for releasing information to Congress and agency officials outside of his direct command that highlighted “grave concern” for endangered Indian children on the Spirit Lake Nation reservation in North Dakota. A letter written by Tilus on April 3 highlighted tribal failures in protecting children there from abuse and neglect.
Congress members and agency employees have expressed widespread concern that Tilus was punished for trying to protect Indian children.
The IHS director says she is on Tilus’ side.
“I want to ensure you that IHS is committed to protecting employees who communicate with Congress regarding concerns on matter of public health and safety,” Roubideaux wrote. In the same letter, she voided the earlier letter of reprimand by Martin, removed the letter from Tilus’ file, restored his access to the IHS IT system, and restored a job offer Tilus had previously received from the IHS office in Billings, Montana.
Roubideaux said she was writing to “remedy” the issues, and she determined that they should be “reversed.”
Tilus had first raised his concerns within the agency about Spirit Lake children, and upon lack of action and his own concern for the Native children involved, sent his concerns to members of Congress. His concerns centered on the killing of two siblings last year, while another death on the reservation—that of 2-month-old Debra Kay Anderson Dogskin—received increased scrutiny in July. Her death came after repeated reports of suspected child abuse, according to the Associated Press, yet she remained in her home.
Congress members have hailed Roubideaux’ decision to remove the reprimand.
“Employees should be free and comfortable in raising concerns with federal officials,” Ryan Bernstein, deputy chief of staff and legal counsel for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, said in a statement.