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Published July 26 2012

Forum editorial: A hopeful step for native kids

The arrest of a 19-year-old for the murder of two Spirit Lake Reservation children is an important, visible step in an ongoing and often frustrating effort to protect American Indian children. Valentino Bagola was charged by federal authorities with four counts of murder in connection with the deaths of 6-year-old Travis Lee DuBois Jr. and 9-year-old Destiny Jane Shaw DuBois. He pleaded not guilty. The reservation is south of Devils Lake, N.D.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon announced the arrest and charges Monday in a written statement that was distinguished by its detail. Most often, his office (and U.S. attorneys before him) limits such announcements to a one or two-line statement. The Monday news release did not give all the details of the 14-month investigation and arrest, but it said more than the office usually says about such matters. That suggests the dangerous conditions for children in Indian country are getting more attention from governments at all levels and from the public and press.

That’s good news. We don’t mean to suggest Purdon, his staff and others involved in child protection on reservations have not focused on the problem. Rather, their focus has intensified as more and more horrific stories of children in harm’s way have been made public. Often what goes on in Indian country never sees the light of day. That is changing.

Among the obstacles confronting child welfare advocates and law enforcement is the byzantine jurisdictional overlap on reservations, including sensitivity about maintaining respect for the sovereignty of native lands and tribal governments. If there has been a breakdown in basic protections for children at risk, it has come among tribal governments, police and courts. The federal government has responsibility for capital crimes, but the overlay and complications of tribal law, county social service culpability and multiple sources of funding for child protection programs is a nightmarish tangle. Even in sincere efforts to untangle the mess, children are lost to societal pathologies that have been endemic for generations.

Cynical observers might say nothing will change. Today’s headlines and the renewed focus by the U.S. attorney and others are little more than a repeat of a dark history, they might say. No one said it would be easy. No one expects the risks to native kids to go away in a month, a year, a decade. It will take some time and the kind of multijurisdictional commitment that seems be coming together.

That’s our hope. It’s not yet the reality.

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

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