RESERVATION NOT ACCEPED

THE COURT RETURNED LALITA ALTAHA TO HER NATURAL MOTHER, AND A LIFE OF UNHAPPINESS AT FORT APACHE

For nearly six years, the DesRochers stayed on the road, living in campgrounds and working wherever Normand, a plasterer, could pick up an odd job. Finally, in 1987, their lawyer told them that the FBI was about to get involved in the investigation and the pursuit, and that the DesRochers would be wise to turn themselves in before matters went any further.

In December 1987, the Pima County Attorney's Office filed charges of custodial interference against the DesRochers. The DesRochers turned themselves in, and in January 1988, they returned Lalita to the reservation. That April, they were sentenced to three years' probation and ordered not to have any contact with the girl. @rule:

@body:In 1988, the battle for possession of the then-13-year-old child was seen by some Apaches and their supporters as a battle for the survival of an aboriginal culture that the white man had been trying to destroy for more than a century. It was seen, as well, as a case in which a white family had tricked a poor Apache woman into giving away her baby, and the feeling was that they should be punished and the child should be repatriated. It was the least the white man could do, some felt.

There is no indication that Judge Arnold took any of these philosophical notions into account in 1982, but when Arnold invalidated the DesRochers' adoption of Lalita, certainly Apache partisans believed the white man had finally done the right thing.

"The judge could have decided this case any way he wanted to," says the DesRochers' lawyer, Leighton Rockafellow, "and I think he thought he was doing the right thing by sending her back, because he felt she should know her roots. I don't think the reservation is a very good place to raise children, but I really think Judge Arnold felt he was doing what was best for the child."
Arnold, now retired, recalls, "It was a really tough case for us, emotionally, but a judge can't let his personal feelings get in the way. The law was very clear in that case. It would be very easy if a judge could just ask a little girl, 'Where do you want to live?', and that's the end of it. "I love kids, and I might have done things differently if I went on my personal feelings, but a judge can't do that. You have to apply the law evenly, or you end up with chaos, and in this case, the law was clear, and I must have been right, because it was upheld under appeal."

As a result, Lalita was taken from the only family she knew and returned to her biological mother on the Fort Apache reservation. The child, iron-willed and articulate, did not get off to a good start. "You're not my mom," she told Thurza. "Nadine is my mom!" But at that point, all the theorists and partisans were gone, and Lalita was alone with a mother she barely knew, isolated in a rural village on the reservation.

At the time, no one could dispute the court's decision: It was legally correct, though narrow in focus, and most critics were left to bellow about the cruelty of wrenching an adolescent from a family that had loved and cared for her since infancy and suddenly plunging her into life on an Indian reservation. Some who sympathized with the Apache viewpoint were not insensitive to that perspective, but ultimately, they said, it was the big picture that was most important, and in the big picture, the welfare of one child was not as important as the survival of an entire culture, and the fate of the child and the fate of the culture were inextricably linked.

@rule:
@body:Literally and figuratively, it's a long way from the flower-filled meadows of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to Washington, D.C. With that in mind, there was a temptation to applaud William B. Allen, who, in 1989, was chairman of the United States Civil Rights Commission. When Allen heard about Lalita's case from a flamboyant psychologist named Barry Goodfield, Allen flew to the reservation to see Lalita for himself.

Allen was in a position to do something about an unjust situation, and so it seemed commendable that he would take the time to travel to such a remote location for what seemed like such an obscure case.

But the Apaches on the reservation did not applaud. Allen, along with Goodfield and a film crew from NBC-TV, arrived on the reservation unannounced, intercepted Lalita at school and interviewed her in a rental car while driving the 25 miles that separate Whiteriver and Cedar Creek, where she was living at the time.

Lalita told these officials she was an "outcast" on the reservation, that she was basically a prisoner and that she wanted to go home to her Tucson family. Allen and Goodfield tried to comfort her by telling her she had rights, and that they would bring her case to the attention of others in Washington. Then they went home.

Claudeen Bates Arthur, a Navajo who was, at the time, the Apaches' tribal attorney, was outraged by Allen's actions, and all but called him a racist and suggested he resign. Back in Washington, Allen's fellow commissioners rebuked him and forced him to send letters of apology to the tribe; and the White House, the FBI and at least two congressional committees made him the subject of detailed investigations, which were reported on the front page of the New York Times.

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