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Children are sacred. The innocence and vulnerability of children demand our best efforts to ensure their protection and well-being. This includes “the ones that are on their way,” to use a traditional Northern Cheyenne concept. Big Horn County’s war against methamphetamine and alcohol abuse will be won, but this ongoing fight against the evils of these addictions demands that the health and well-being of our children not be governed by the judgment of addicts.

Prior to Jan. 11, the policy in Big Horn County was to take custody of newborns testing positive for controlled substances or in circumstances where it was known and provable that the expecting mother was using a controlled substance. While this remains a necessary recourse, it has not proven an effective policy to deter in utero substance abuse in our community – not surprising considering the gripping power of addiction. Mothers choosing drugs and alcohol over their children is all too common in our youth in need of care prosecutions. Starting Jan. 11, the county attorney’s office is proactively engaging this issue by pledging maximum efforts to abate substance use while a mother is expecting, thereby minimizing the risk innocent children are subject to lifelong disabilities.

The health professionals in our community strongly encourage expecting mothers to receive care and support needed to help battle substance addiction. A friction is presented when an expecting mother does not seek help and chooses the life of chemical intoxication over the basic duties of a mother to her child. In such a case, what do we do?

Seeking remedy in the courts to protect the ability of an innocent child to experience life without disability should be considered secondary to the primary approach of medical treatment, including trauma-informed counseling and whole person (spiritual, mental, physical, financial, relational) health intervention without court involvement at all. However, without such a judicial safety net, a drug addict or alcoholic expecting mother is in an “honor system” approach at best.

The founders of our nation proclaimed popular sovereignty and injustice as the legal justification to our nation’s existence and the reason "governments are instituted amongst men." Now, a specific assurance of the general welfare contains a charge of duty to our exercise of public authority. I take the position that protecting innocent, unborn human life is a just cause supported by the principles contained in our Montana Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence — that all people are created equal by God with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This must include a healthy and productive life without disabilities and hardship caused at the most critical time in our physical development.

Consider that under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, it is a federal offense punishable by prison to knowingly or with wanton recklessness damage an eagle's egg, or even a nest. Most will honor the importance of protecting eagles, but I strongly believe Montanans would agree that humans are deserving of greater protection by law.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared 50 years ago, “There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.” Our efforts today will reverberate throughout successive generations, whether we succeed or fail to obligate ourselves to justice and a renewal of our commitment to protecting each other.

I propose that we are true in making every effort to honor the gift of life by ensuring we can look innocent, healthy and happy children in the eye and say We valued the sacredness of your life enough to have fought for you and we ask that you instill this value into your own children. As set forth in the Citizen’s Oath of ancient Athens, we must transmit our community not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

History shows the future does not favor the uncourageous, and it is the future of Big Horn County, especially the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribal communities, that is in the balance.

Jay Harris is the Big Horn County attorney.