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Blake Nicholson, Associated Press, Published June 21 2013

Charges filed in toddler’s death at Spirit Lake

BISMARCK – Federal authorities have charged a woman in the death of a toddler on the Spirit Lake Reservation, where the effectiveness of the child protection system has been the subject of debate for more than a year.

Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield, 31, of St. Michael, is charged with child abuse and neglect, a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum punishment of 20 years upon conviction. She made her initial appearance Thursday in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks and has a detention hearing scheduled Monday.

Her court-appointed defense attorney, Ted Sandberg, said she plans to plead not guilty.

Whiteshield is charged in the death earlier this month of a girl who was a month shy of 3 years old. FBI Special Agent Michael Meyer said in an affidavit that Whiteshield is married to the child’s grandfather, Freeman Whiteshield.

Tomahawk Whiteshield is accused of throwing the girl down an embankment by the family’s home on June 12, then bathing and clothing the unresponsive child and putting her to bed. The girl was found dead the next morning. An autopsy concluded she died of a head injury.

“The medical examiner advised the agents that this type of injury would not be caused by normal day to day activities of a child her age, i.e. bumping her head or rolling off her bed,” Meyer said in his affidavit.

The agent said that when investigators asked Tomahawk Whiteshield why she had pushed the girl and the girl’s twin sister, the woman replied that she “was getting depressed about having kids all the time.”

Sandberg declined to comment on the alleged statement.

The two girls had been with a foster family in Bismarck for two years and were transferred back to the reservation about a month before the death, according to Meyer.

The safety of vulnerable children on the reservation has been questioned for months. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the tribe’s child protection services in October following repeated criticism that the tribe’s efforts to stem child abuse and neglect were failing. The criticism began to mount after the May 2011 slaying of a 6-year-old and his 9-year-old sister, who authorities say had been sexually assaulted.

North Dakota’s U.S. senators, John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, called earlier this week for quick action by authorities in the death of the St. Michael girl.

U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said in a statement that “the protection of children is a top priority for my office, and we are doing everything possible to thoroughly and deliberately investigate this matter.”