The aunt and mother of two toddlers found emaciated on Pine Ridge in 2016 have been sentenced, bringing closer to an end a criminal case that reverberated far outside the reservation.
Darshan Featherman, 31, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison for felony child abuse and neglect. She earlier pleaded guilty to the offense, admitting withholding food from a 2-year-old girl — her sister’s daughter — who had been placed in her care.
The girl’s 3-year-old sister, meanwhile, had been left with Darshan’s mother, Roberta Featherman.
The toddlers were accidentally discovered at Roberta’s home when tribal police responded to a report of a fight at the Potato Creek residence on Nov. 11, 2016. A police search of the home later revealed that food had been hidden in the bedrooms, apparently so the toddlers couldn’t steal it.
A pediatrician who examined the children said they would have died if they hadn’t been found that night. Both weighed around 13 pounds, a third of the ideal weight for their age. The older one couldn’t walk and had apparently gone blind from head trauma inflicted by Roberta.
The doctor compared their level of starvation to those of World War II Holocaust victims, and said the psychological impact of such an abuse would be comparable to or greater than the physical pain.
“She had no subcutaneous tissue, just skin and bones,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Poppen said of the child in Darshan’s custody, adding that the girls were systematically starved for about three months before they were discovered.
Their mother, Darcel Featherman, said she turned over the girls to her mother and sister in the spring of 2016 because she was homeless and didn’t have the means to raise them. Her seven other children were also left in the care of relatives whom she considered more stable, Darcel’s lawyer, Justin DiBona, told the court.
“In what world would you expect your own mother to starve your children?” DiBona said at Darcel's sentencing on Thursday. Darcel didn’t check up on the girls and didn’t know they were being abused, he added.
Darcel, 34, had also pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and neglect for abandoning her daughters to people whom she knew were unfit to take care of them. She admitted, in a written statement, knowing her mother was a “lifelong alcoholic with anger issues” and her sister was a “methamphetamine user and an alcoholic.”
Darshan and Roberta would use government aid to buy alcohol, and Darshan would pay her mother with alcohol to watch the 2-year-old girl, the prosecutor said.
Darshan wasn’t an innocent bystander, Poppen said, explaining she admitted knowing the toddlers were being starved and considered taking them to a doctor but did not. She recommended 10 years in prison for Darshan, which the court heeded.
Poppen asked for at least five years in prison for Darcel, but U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken sentenced her to three years of probation. The court also ordered her to pay $4,300 as restitution to the Social Security Administration after misusing government aid meant for her son.
Viken said Darcel was not guilty of starving the children and had taken steps forward, such as finding employment and undergoing treatment.
He described the case as very unusual and “totally contrary to the Lakota culture.”
Darcel told the judge she struggled to comprehend how her mother and sister could have abused her daughters.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought they were in their right mind to take care of them while I tried to get back on my feet.”
Roberta and a man who lived with her, Harold Red Owl, are facing charges of assault resulting in serious bodily injury and felony child abuse and neglect. Their cases are still being heard.
Three other co-defendants, who were staying at Roberta’s home and would have witnessed the toddlers’ suffering, were charged with lesser offenses. The charges against two were dismissed after they pleaded guilty to other offenses.
The judge told Darshan and Darcel that their mother might never be sentenced for her role in the toddlers’ abuse. Roberta has been diagnosed with progressive dementia, an organic brain problem, and has been committed to a mental institution.
The girls, who are now ages 3 and 4, are living with a foster family.
According to the prosecutor, the woman taking care of them said the children are doing better physically, but they’ll likely have lifelong battles with eating disorders.
“They don’t want to stop eating even when they’re full,” Poppen said.
Darshan’s lawyer acknowledged her client’s wrongdoing but said Darshan had also been a victim of abuse — by the father of her children and by Roberta.
“She is broken,” defense attorney Jennifer Albertson said in an emotional statement, adding that Darshan didn’t know where to turn for help about the girls. She asked Viken for a lenient sentence to show the Pine Ridge community that long prison sentences weren’t the only answer to such crimes.
When given a chance to speak, Darshan could only utter a few words: “I accept whatever punishment. I accept.”
The judge said the toddlers’ starvation was as close as one can get to a homicide without an actual death.