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Records dispute costs family violence program director her job

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EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. -The director of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's family violence program got her walking papers after a standoff in late January over her refusal to turn over confidential, client records to tribal officials. In addition, she and four other women were arrested on trespassing charges and released on bond.

Janet Collins, director for the Family Violence Protection and Services Program for the past two years, received a letter informing her the tribe had accepted her verbal resignation. Two employees were suspended for 15 days without pay for their participation in the short-lived occupation.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Gregg Bourland accepted the verbal resignation of the director and told a statewide daily newspaper it would stand.

"The chairman stated to the Rapid City Journal that he accepted my resignation and it will stand, which pretty much tells me I have no chance of getting my job back. Why bother to go through the grievance process?" she said in an interview.

Collins said she resigned in the heat of the moment when tempers flared over the release of client records. Bourland said the tribal treasurer was attempting to investigate "improper financial transactions."

Tribal officials had demanded the clients' records to account for expenditures made by the program to make sure clients weren't "double dipping," Collins said.

However, her program doesn't require its clients to qualify for assistance based on income levels and the only requirement is that they are victims of domestic violence.

"The financial records weren't a problem," Collins said.

She said Treasurer Benita Clark wanted to tie a name to a voucher to account for monies spent by the program, but that move would violate client confidentiality since financial records kept by the tribe are open to public scrutiny and revealing client names would become public information potentially endangering her clients.

The records in dispute contained no financial details, she said.

Collins and five women remained in the Eagle Butte family violence office after 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26.

The tribal chairman refused to comment on the issue other than sending out a press release later telling reporters the records request was part of an ongoing investigation of the program. He disputed the notion disclosure would have violated client confidentiality.

"It was very unfortunate that there was a breakdown in communications. It is even more unfortunate that the press immediately tried to sensationalize this situation, which we believe has caused fear and confusion with clients," he said in the release.

The program serves more than 200 clients and is often the program tribal members turn to when they can't get help under other programs with certain income guidelines.

Bourland said he hoped the parties could reach a compromise between client confidentiality and the tribe's need to monitor the program's finances.

Collins, her two employees, a woman from the Sacred Heart Center, a woman from the South Dakota Coalition and two other supporters staged a sit-in to prevent tribal officials from seizing the files.

"We went back to the office and contemplated the whole situation. We decided there was only one thing to do - stay and protect the filing cabinets," she said.

The tribe's vice president came to the office and sat with the women for the night, trying to resolve the dispute, she said.

Collins and her advocates later met with seven members of the council and struck an agreement allowing the vice president to keep the keys to the building. In return, they were offered assurances nobody would get into the building, access the files and there would be no retaliation by the tribal administration for the stand employees took in protecting the records, she said.

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The tribal councilmen and its vice president went back to the tribal offices and returned about an hour and a half later with the reprimands.

"Mine stated that the administrative officer was accepting the verbal resignation I made the day before and as of 1 p.m. that day I was no longer an employee. My co-workers stated they were suspended for 15 days without pay," she said.

"We locked the doors again and decided we weren't going to leave. Nothing was done."

About 4 p.m. employees received a phone call warning them they had to be out of the building by 5 p.m. or the staff would be terminated and they would be arrested.

After the initial dispute, the director requested a restraining order in tribal court on Jan. 31 to prevent the tribal officials from seizing the records. While the restraining order had been issued, police arrested Collins and four other women on trespassing charges.

Although the order was served, Collins said it was rescinded after tribal officials defended their actions under sovereign immunity.

The women were formally charged with trespassing. Each was released on a $50 personal recognizance bond.

Tribal officials advised Collins' attorney they were appointing new staff and were opening the building.

"They replaced my two co-workers and placed the director of the tribal program in charge as acting director of the program," she said.

Collins said her actions were for the protection of clients who might be compromised. "There are other programs that have confidentiality issues. Something needs to be adopted by council or a law passed that prevents this sort of thing from happening again," she said.

Concerning the financial issue, she said, "They did bring up a finance voucher and made a big issue about it. The whole thing about that finance voucher was there was no money paid out of that account for this reason," she said.

The voucher or receipt had to do with money which was disbursed in connection with a client's request for financial help and the tribe wanted to tie it with a name to account for the money, Collins said. "I still wouldn't give them a name," she said.

Collins denied rumors she embezzled money from the program.

"It came down to a client's confidentiality almost being breached and the situation was a lot more serious than they thought it was," she said.

Still uncertain as to what the tribe's interest really was, the former director said the tribe had a new version of its request at every turn.

"Their stories went from, 'We didn't ask for a list. We just asked for one name.' to 'We didn't ask for one name. We just wanted a finance voucher' and now it is, 'We didn't want a finance voucher. We just wanted a receipt,"' she said.

In the end, Collins said the issue simply was about a power struggle.

"It started out as something we felt strongly about and it turned into politics," she said.

"We wouldn't play ball with them so we're out of there. They are going to appoint people they can control," the former director said.