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Published June 22 2013

Forum editorial: Heitkamp puts them on notice after child's death

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is angry. The North Dakota Democrat’s remarks last week only hint of the depth of her anger over the death of yet another child on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in northeast North Dakota. Her anger was further stoked by what appeared to be stonewalling by authorities that were warned months ago – by Heitkamp and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. – that the child protection system on the reservation was broken and needed quick repairs and complete transparency.

An arrest was made Thursday after the FBI described the child’s death as “mysterious.” That is progress, but it does not explain the circumstances that put the child in harm’s way. It’s business as usual, not a solution to an endemic malady. And it does not excuse the initial official silence. That’s what set off the senators.

If the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal officials were listening to the senators during the past few months, their conduct suggests they haven’t gotten the message. Heitkamp, not one to mince words when she sees wrong being done, did not disappoint. “Somehow,” she said, referring to the attention on child abuse and neglect at Spirit Lake in the past year, “with all this attention, all this ballyhoo, we still lost another child. Tell me, how did this happen? I’m beside myself.”

For his part, Hoeven, who took the lead on the Spirit Lake problem when it first emerged (Heitkamp got involved quickly when she was elected to the Senate in November), said the death must be immediately and transparently explained by tribal, federal and other authorities. Hoeven’s spokesman said the senator wants “to get answers …”

That’s precisely the problem. Heitkamp characterized the reaction following the child’s death as a “veil of silence.” The child apparently was moved from a safe foster home and returned to the home where she was believed to be in danger. She died there. Heitkamp wants to know why and who and what. As of the weekend, the answers were not clear.

Heitkamp’s anger is fueled by her passion for securing the safety of native children at Spirit Lake and elsewhere. Hoeven’s style is more low-key, but he, too, is committed to the welfare of children at risk. Both senators serve on the Indian Affairs Committee.

Given recent history, it is baffling that the BIA, tribe or others involved in law enforcement at Spirit Lake shut out the two senators who are determined to fix the mess there. Who’s in charge? Who is protecting whom?

Heitkamp’s anger is more than justified. Regarding the “veil of silence,” she said, “I am not buying that we would hurt the criminal investigation by understanding how that child ended up back in that home.” Hoeven has urged tribal and federal officials to be more open.

Apparently to no avail. Another tragic death and what’s the initial response? No response.

Whatever corruption, whatever social pathology and whatever self-protection have been putting Spirit Lake children at risk for who knows how long, it appears little has changed, even in the light of intense scrutiny. If Heitkamp’s refreshing and justifiable ire is any indication, she will not let the status quo stand.

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