Toddler’s death puts Tulalips’ court in spotlight

TULALIP — Tulalip tribal investigators are waiting on results from an autopsy of a young girl to determine who ultimately should prosecute the toddler’s mother in an apparent case of neglect.

For now, the case is in Tulalip Tribal Court, a legal system that has been carefully nurtured over the past decade as part of the tribes’ efforts to administer justice and strengthen their community.

Christina Carlson, 36, is charged with criminal endangerment and failure to support or care for a dependent person, both violations of tribal law. Tulalip prosecutors allege that Carlson refused or neglected to furnish basic necessities for her two daughters, ages 19 months and 2½ years, for more than two weeks.

Carlson was arrested Oct. 8 after her daughter, Chantel Craig, was found not breathing in a car on the Tulalip Reservation. Chantel and her older sister were rushed to the hospital in need of immediate care.

Chantel did not survive. The cause of her death remains under investigation.

Carlson pleaded not guilty to the charges in tribal court.

She is an enrolled member of the Tulalip Tribes, according to court papers. 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 share jurisdiction with the tribes. The law gives federal authorities jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute more than a dozen major crimes, such as murder, rape, manslaughter and felony child abuse or neglect.

FBI agents assisted Tulalip tribal police detectives early on in the death investigation.

“At this juncture, we’re waiting for the (medical examiner’s) report for cause of death,” said longtime reservation attorney Mike Taylor.

The tribes could request that the U.S. Attorney’s Office take jurisdiction in the case under the federal Major Crimes Act. The tribes would maintain concurrent jurisdiction, but it’s unlikely that Carlson would be prosecuted in two separate systems, Taylor said.

The case has brought into sharp focus the Tulalips’ ongoing work to build their own legal justice system.

The history is long and complicated, tribal leaders explained.

One milestone can be traced back to 1979, when the Northwest Intertribal Court System was established. The non-profit is a consortium of tribes in Western Washington that partnered to help each tribe develop its own court system by sharing legal resources such as judges, prosecutors and court services.

The tribal courts initially were used to sort out fishery issues.

The services were expanded as the Tulalips and other tribes sought to develop community-based courts.

Today, the judges that preside over the Tulalip Tribal Court are provided by the Northwest Intertribal Court System and aren’t tribal employees, Taylor said. The judges, Theresa Pouley and Gary Bass, both members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, have decades of legal and judicial experience.

Pouley, the Tulalips’ chief judge, is president of the Northwest Tribal Court Judges Association. She also formerly served on the board of directors for the National American Indian Court Judges Association. She’s provided testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and last year was appointed to the federal Indian Law and Order Commission.

In remarks to the U.S. Senate in 2008, Pouley said, “No government has a greater stake in effective criminal justice system in Indian Country than the tribes themselves.”

The Tulalip Tribal Court’s expansion has been significant since 2001. That’s when the Tulalips successfully petitioned the state and federal governments to return law enforcement powers on the reservation to the tribes and federal authorities. The retrocession cleared the way for the Tulalips to create their own police force to oversee public safety on the reservation.

The move also brought with it complications as tribal, federal and state authorities worked to establish their roles on a reservation that is home to both tribal members and non-Indians.

The tribal police force saw some successes early on, including reducing crashes on Marine Drive, one of the reservation’s main thoroughfares.

Federal authorities also had praise for the department in 2006 after two Tulalip tribal police detectives made an arrest in the 2004 death of a young Tulalip mother.

Initially, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Sophia Solomon, 23, committed suicide. Tribal police, however, pursued the investigation and later arrested a man in connection with Solomon’s death.

Eventually, tribal police officers were cross-commissioned by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, giving them authority to arrest non-Indians on the reservation. State courts maintain jurisdiction over non-tribal criminal defendants and those cases are handled by Snohomish County prosecutors.

“We have developed a good working relationship with the Snohomish County sheriff and Washington State Patrol,” Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon. “It wasn’t that way 20 years ago.”

A growing tribal police department has meant the court system also needed to expand.

In recent years, the tribes further developed its court system, hiring their own prosecutors. Former Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis held the job for about two years before she was appointed to the Snohomish County Superior Court bench.

Public defenders are provided by the nationally recognized Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic at the University of Washington Native American Law Center.

The court now hears criminal cases, child custody and support matters, divorces, traffic and other types of legal cases.

In 2006, the Tulalip court was honored by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for creating a sentencing program for crimes related to drug addiction. At the time, the court was recognized for being one of the strongest tribal courts in the country.

In 2009, the Washington State Bar Association also honored the court’s Elder’s Panel program. Tribal elders volunteer to meet with young, first-time, nonviolent offenders facing minor criminal offenses. The offenders must successfully complete the one-year commitment that may include regular appearances in front of the panel, substance abuse treatment, community service, anger management classes or other requirements.

The court has other specialized programs that focus on restorative justice, including a juvenile diversion program and the Wellness Court, which targets adult offenders who have substance abuse problems.

“In my personal opinion, as a Tulalip tribal member, our job is to minimize the impact of a traumatic event on the community and the way to do that is to heal the person that committed the act,” said Niki Cleary, communications manager for the Tulalip Tribes.

That does not mean absolving people of their personal responsibility, but it does mean a focus on healing rather than only on punishment, she added.

Sheldon said he has seen a growing change in how the tribal community views the court system.

“What is so interesting about this journey we have been on is that Indian people never trusted the court system run by non-tribal people. When you have your own court system here, including things like the Elder’s Panel that focuses on restorative justice, they come to trust the system,” Sheldon said.

Additionally, a healthy community needs legitimate, transparent and responsible legal system, Taylor said.

Investing in a justice system provides assurance that the tribes value the rule of law, and that is important to for public safety and economic growth, Taylor said.

“That kind of development is only successful if the community is strong,” Taylor said.

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