‘Methamphetamine killed that girl’

Posted: 16th July 2012 by Doc in Uncategorized
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The death of a toddler in a tribal housing project in rural Wagner that went unreported for a day and a half has left Francis Zephier outraged.

On Thursday, Charles Mix County prosecutors charged the caregivers of RieLee Lovell with child abuse and failure to report the death of a child for the events surrounding the discovery of the 2-year-old’s body July 4.

Court documents released in the case against Taylor Cournoyer, 21, and Laurie Cournoyer, 28, say the husband and wife used methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription sleeping pills in the hours after the toddler’s death and that neither of them could pinpoint the last time they saw the child alive.

The two were related to Lovell and caring for her but were not her parents. An 11-year-old male relative, who also had been living in the home, is in custody but has not been charged.

Like the Cournoyers, Zephier lives in tax credit housing under the watch of the Yankton Sioux Tribal Housing Authority.

Zephier lives in Lake Andes, 16 miles from the Cournoyer’s home, but she says the problem of methamphetamine abuse runs through tribal tax credit housing, and the effect it has on Indian families has been ignored by authorities for far too long.

“Everybody wants to sugar-coat it, but we have to be honest: methamphetamine killed that girl,” Zephier said. “My niece, her parents are on meth … She could have been just like RieLee.”

Zephier says it’s time for the tribal community to stand up to the dealers and users, especially in tribal housing. Users will hide from state or local police on tribal land, she says, and tribal officers don’t do enough.

When parents and caregivers are awake and partying for days on the powerful stimulant, she said, children go unfed and unattended.

“The kids are tired of it,” she said. “When the parties start, the kids are happy because they have their freedom. But seven days later, when they haven’t eaten, that’s when the problems happen.”

Yankton Sioux Tribal officials declined to comment Friday. Council member Ida Ashes said the council will meet Monday to discuss the tribe’s response to the issues raised by Lovell’s death and offer a statement at that time.

Policing problems

Jurisdictional issues have plagued enforcement of drug laws on reservation land for decades, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said. State police cannot make arrests on tribal land, and tribal police lose jurisdiction on state or local land.

Tribes that share land areas with the state, such as the Yankton Sioux, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, have more difficulties than those whose lands are concentrated on reservations, he said.

Johnson wants to see more cross-deputization for local law enforcement and mutual aid agreements that would allow officers to respond to emergencies on tribal land or vice versa. The Yankton Sioux Tribe has not signed any such agreement with deputies in Charles Mix County or officers with the Wagner Police Department.

“That’s what we need to see happen, especially in these checkerboard areas,” Johnson said. “A lot of what they’re dealing with in tribal law enforcement is a lack of resources.”

Meth dealers

Zephier says she’s being evicted from her home in Old Housing neighborhood in Lake Andes because she took on the meth dealers.

She says she’s called police about specific homes where she thinks meth was being sold but was dissatisfied with the response.

So she put up a sign facing the road outside her house, illuminated by a light bulb, that said “meth for sale” and listed a house number in her unit.

“If no one wants to fight methamphetamine, I wanted to point out where the drugs were,” she said.

On July 5, the day after Lovell’s body was discovered, Zephier said her 8-year-old daughter and 1-year-old niece, Mya, were assaulted by a group of teens. Her daughter was pushed, and the 1-year-old fell to the ground and hit her head.

She reported the incident after hearing from the children, but she said the tribal officer who took the call decided there wasn’t enough information to make an arrest. After the officers left, the windows of her car were broken out and the tomato plants in her garden were torn up.

Then on Wednesday, she got a letter informing her of her eviction. The letter cited threats to others on the property and unpaid rent as the reason for the eviction.

Her husband, Robin Bear, thinks the whole thing is an attempt to keep the problem hidden. He said the family lives on assistance and can afford to pay only a small portion of the rent each month — that’s the terms of the housing agreement. He says plenty of poor families haven’t paid their full rent. He also said threats are common among neighbors.

Pointing at the rule infraction cited in the eviction letter, he said “If they really enforced that, they’d have to evict everyone in here.”

Zephier and Bear are appealing their eviction to the tribe’s housing authority.

Hard to cooperate

Earlier in the week, Yankton Sioux Tribal council member Glenford “Sam” Sully said the jurisdictional issues that complicate law enforcement efforts in tribal housing are serious enough to warrant an overhaul of the system.

Already, he said, the council has announced its intention to take over tribal law enforcement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in October. The tribe’s officers currently work under BIA authority, according to Special Agent In Charge Mario Red Legs, but all tribes have the right to run their own law enforcement if they choose to.

The problem of jurisdiction between tribes and state and local authorities is more frustrating in the housing development where Lovell lived.

Those homes are on state land and outside the jurisdiction of the Wagner Police Department, leaving the Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office with the responsibility of responding to calls.

It shouldn’t be that way, Johnson said. Cooperation can help take down drug networks on the reservation.

In late May, Johnson’s office announced federal drug trafficking charges had been filed against 17 people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation based on the work of a group called the Northern Plains Safe Trails Drug Task Force, which includes federal, state, local and tribal officers.

The group also was behind a 12-person indictment for prescription drug trafficking in Bennett County on June 25.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe is not a part of the cooperative group, he said.

“There are tribes that feel they don’t have the resources to be a part of that task force,” he said. “They have a shortage of police officers.”

Johnson and Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s top tribal liaison, J.R. LaPlante, recently spent a day talking with tribal, local and county law enforcement in Wagner about law and order problems in Charles Mix County in hopes that more communication can help build trust and lead to cooperation.

A lack of police resources is only part of the story, Johnson said.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe has sparred with the state over land acquisition issues for years, and tribal authorities are loathe to give up jurisdiction lightly.

“This goes back to some long-standing historical issues, and we can’t force governments into these agreements,” Johnson said.

Zephier understands how difficult it is to give on the issue of jurisdiction. She says her father would “turn over in his grave” if he knew she were even considering an endorsement of such cooperation.

But something must be done, she says.

Her neighbors are frightened to speak out for fear of losing their homes or clashing with drug dealers, she said, but she and her husband say they’re ready to speak out.

“They can’t do anything worse than what they’re doing already,” she said. “If we keep our mouths shut, we’re letting it happen.”







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