A Tulalip mother whose young daughter died from neglect made her first court appearance since being indicted for second-degree murder.
A federal public defender entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Christina Carlson during a brief hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Carlson, 37, remains in custody at Federal Detention Center SeaTac. Her trial is scheduled for July 22.
Earlier this month, a federal grand jury in Seattle indicted Carlson with the murder charge and criminal mistreatment charges. Carlson faces a minimum 30 years in prison if convicted as charged in the Oct. 8 death of her daughter, Chantel Craig.
"There’s nothing but tragedy in this case," U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said Thursday.
Federal prosecutors allege that Carlson all but abandoned her two young daughters in a parked car on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. They were left buckled in their car seats for hours, court papers said. They went without food and water for days. The girls were covered with sores, feces and maggots.
Chantel wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse when aid crews reached her. The 19-month-old didn’t survive. Her sister, 3, nearly died, too. She spent days in intensive care, recovering from dehydration and sores from prolonged exposure to urine and feces.
An autopsy determined Chantel was dehydrated and suffered from severe malnutrition.
Federal prosecutors allege that Carlson withheld basic necessities of life from her children. She allegedly told police she hadn’t changed the girls’ diapers in four days because she had run out. Police found a full package of unused diapers in the car’s trunk.
Investigators later determined that in the hours before Chantel died, Carlson allegedly was sending text messages, attempting to buy drugs, court papers said. Witnesses reported seeing Carlson smoking heroin days earlier in the car while the girls were in the backseat. Tests conducted on the older girl’s hair showed evidence that the child had been exposed to opiates.
"This is a very difficult and complicated case," Durkan said.
Prosecutors are expected to weigh any mitigating information provided by the defense against the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death, she said.
The defendant’s attorney declined to talk about the case after Thursday’s hearing.
Carlson initially was charged in Tulalip Tribal Court. Since 2001, the Tulalip Tribes have assumed jurisdiction over criminal matters on the reservation involving Tulalip members and other people who belong to federally recognized tribes.
Federal authorities also have jurisdiction on tribal land to investigate and prosecute more than a dozen major crimes, such as murder, rape, manslaughter and felony child abuse or neglect.
Under the law, Carlson could face a mandatory minimum 30 years behind bars for Chantel’s death. The potential lengthy prison term comes from the Adam Walsh Child Protection Safety Act. The 2006 law increased federal penalties for people convicted of crimes against children. The law was named after a 6-year-old Florida boy who was kidnapped from a mall and murdered in 1981.
The criminal mistreatment charges against Carlson are punishable by up to a decade behind bars.
"These are some of the most difficult cases we do. We strive to honor the child who is the victim. We also have to hold people accountable," Durkan said. "Also together, as a society, we must work to make sure this doesn’t happen again."
Carlson and the girls had for months been the focus of on-again, off-again searches by state and tribal child welfare workers.
They had been investigating allegations that Chantel and her sister were being neglected after receiving a call from their grandmother in December 2011.
Generally the law requires state social workers to close a Child Protective Services investigation within three months. In this case, the social worker kept the investigation open for 10 months, citing concerns because of the mother’s past and her lack of contact with her own family. By keeping it open, the state could offer voluntary services to the parents.
In a terrible coincidence, state social workers closed the investigation hours before Chantel died. They hadn’t been able to find her or Carlson. The woman reportedly told police she and her daughters had for weeks been living in her car down a dirt road on the reservation.
Relatives told investigators that Carlson likely was avoiding authorities. She had lost custody of at least three other children because of her drug use and neglect, court papers said.
It is unclear if the Tulalip authorities continued to search for the family. Tribal law prevents anyone from the tribes to speak about child welfare investigations.
Earlier this year, the CPS investigation underwent a state review by a team of experts who by law were required to examine the circumstances surrounding Chantel’s death. The panel offered recommendations, but found no "critical errors" on behalf of state Child Administration employees.
The panelists, however, encouraged the state and the Tulalips to revisit their local agreement for handling child welfare cases on tribal land. They concluded that state social workers need more clarification about their individual responsibilities.
Durkan said she believes that there may be lessons to learn from the girl’s death. She would welcome working with tribal, state and county authorities to determine if there are holes in the system that need to be fixed, Durkan said.
"We have an obligation to look beyond (the criminal case) and broaden our view, looking at steps we can take on the prevention side of the ledger," she said.
Durkan said she is confident that the Tulalips have been deeply affected by the death of one of their children.
"An event like this has a much larger effect on the community," she said. "They’re all feeling it."
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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