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Published July 17 2012

Forum editorial: Priority is safe children

Children are at risk in North Dakota’s Indian country, and the official response thus far has been mostly finger-pointing, buck-passing and a few innings of the blame game.

In a series of reports, Forum Communications reporters Patrick Springer of The Forum and Chuck Haga of the Grand Forks Herald revealed a slice of a toxic environment in which children are abused, neglected, exposed to drugs and even murdered. The reporters spent several days on the Spirit Lake Reservation south of Devils Lake, N.D., but the malignancy they encountered can be found on other reservations.

Prompted by anecdotal evidence and official reports, the team confirmed that American Indian children are at extraordinary risk. The pathologies that measure a society’s health – especially as they affect children – seem to be magnified and concentrated in Indian country. Children are trapped in circumstances that almost guarantee they will be victimized in some way: violence against them, exposure to drugs and alcohol, malnutrition, family dissolution, school truancy, an endemic atmosphere of fear.

Negotiating the jurisdictional labyrinth on a reservation is a nightmare for child welfare advocates, law enforcement agencies and state and federal officials. As a result, a problem that is not new has metastasized into a condition that is as scandalous as it is tragic. Everyone involved in the welfare of children tends to say the right things, but when it comes to solutions – when it comes to changing a dysfunctional system – little of substance gets done.

For example, foster care, which is designed to remove children from dangerous situations and get them into nurturing homes, seems like a good option. It does not work when bureaucracy, tribal opposition and unaccountability regarding money attached to foster care hamstring the program.

When individuals have the courage to take their concerns about the welfare of reservation kids off the reservation, the response frequently from county social workers is, “It’s the tribe’s business.” Tribal leaders wrap themselves in the reservation’s “sovereign nation” status.

The U.S. attorney’s office, Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI are investigating at least one child death. But it’s too late after a child has died.

When asked about the obvious, tribal leaders say they are aware, but “need more money.” That hardly is credible when no one seems to know where the money goes.

U.S. attorneys from North Dakota and South Dakota are hosting a three-day workshop in Fargo to help victims of violence in Indian country. Participants are considering “culturally appropriate” ways to deal with family violence in native communities. Nice idea, but “culturally appropriate” suggests a hands-off or kid-glove approach to getting children out of harm’s way. The focus must be on children at risk. Getting them to safety and punishing their abusers are culturally appropriate no matter where they live.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.