By empowering tribes, federal task force aims to cut Native children's exposure to violence

Jill Burke

The advisory committee for the U.S. Department of Justice's recently formed Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence is in Anchorage this week to hold the last of four public hearings. What's heard will be used to help write a final set of policy recommendations submitted to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder later this year.

High rates of trauma experienced by Native women and families is more acute in Alaska than most other parts of the country, panelists and presenters explained. Many of the proposed fixes touch on the sometimes tense, often complicated and interwoven, relationships between the state, federal government and tribes. During the hearing, the U.S. Department of Justice pledged to support tribes in their sovereignty effort, aimed at having the authority to issue domestic violence protective orders.

On Wednesday, members of the advisory committee - which includes academics, policy experts, a musician, former and current politicians and an actor - opened a two-day listening session at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Anchorage.

Monday's session focused on the status of Alaska Native children exposed to violence in the home as well as the community and juvenile justice system.

'Intolerable' violence'

In opening remarks, Tony West, associate attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, described the violence Native children experience as victims or witnesses as "intolerable." He called the safety and welfare of Alaska Native people "precarious at best."

"The realities of geography and jurisdiction make this a place like no other; where the challenges of reducing the exposure of children to violence is particularly unique, particularly complex, and particularly hard," West said.

Here's why, according to West's prepared remarks:

•Alaskan Native women make up less than 20 percent of the state's overall population, but represent nearly half of all reported rape victims.

•Alaska Natives are two-and-a-half times more likely to die by homicide than white Alaskans.

•As recently as 2011, Native children comprised more than half of all maltreatment reports substantiated by Alaska's child protective services and more than 60 percent of all children removed from their homes.

•Few Native communities have their own enforcement officers. Village Public Safety Officers -- who serve under the supervision of Alaska State Troopers-- are spread thin, inconsistently trained and unarmed. At least 75 communities lack any law enforcement presence.

An incremental step forward is the withdrawal of section 910 of the Violence Against Women Act. That section excluded Alaska tribes from the ability to issue and enforce civil domestic violence orders. West said the Justice Department supports the change.

There will always be competing arguments for and against who should have jurisdiction - whether it be Alaska Native tribes or the State of Alaska - but regardless of the politics, "this justice will be a voice in support of tribal sovereignty," West said.

While these changes to the Violence Against Women Act aren't a quick or a full solution, West said they send "a message that tribal authority and tribal sovereignty matters. The civil protection orders tribal courts issue ought to be respected and enforced."

'You are not forgotten'

West sits on the federal working group for the task force along with other high-ranking federal officials. Among them, also present in Anchorage this week, is Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary-Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

A member of Chicksaw Nation of Oklahoma, Washburn said that as a child he had watched his mother suffer abuse. He wanted those present at Wednesday's hearing to know he recognized the past and current struggles Indian Country has faced in trying to keep its families safe. "You are not forgotten," he told the room, noting that here in Alaska, those struggles may be the greatest, calling the nation's Native children the greatest and most vulnerable treasure we have.

Valerie Davidson, senior director of legal and governmental affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, described the importance of a field trip to Bethel by members of the panel earlier this week.

She described the regional hub "as the New York City of the region." Comprising 75,000 square miles, with no roads connecting communities, Bethel, she said, was closer to the "real Alaska" than Anchorage. As the group took boat and plane rides to visit nearby communities, she said she hoped the junket was eye opening. The "big plane" they rode in had nine seats, and when exiting the boat at low tide, they had to jump into mud to reach land.

The group saw the limited access to running water. In the Yukon River community of Emmonak, they visited the only tribally owned women's shelter in the country.

Imagine seeking help when nine months pregnant, or ill, or trying to flee a violent abuser in rural Alaska. It costs $550 to fly from Emmonak to Bethel, or $1,000 to make the longer trip to Anchorage, so economics are one more barrier to safety, Davidson said.

"Alaska families really want what every American families wants: healthy, happy, safe communities. Because of where we live we may have to do things differently in order to accomplish that. Children are always the right reason," she said.

The Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the National Child Welfare Association, the Indian Law and Order Commission and Alaska Native tribal leaders gave stark examples of what's not working, and what it would take to change institutional obstacles to reduce the amount of violence children experience.

Children of violence are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, addiction, future domestic violence and sexual victimization, trouble in school, incarceration, suicide, homicide. Alaska Native children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system. . . Too often, funding for programs is temporary, just a few years, when sustained funding is what's required to make a more meaningful impact.

Alaska's 'colonial' framework

"In our country one of of every four Native youth suffers from PTSD, the same percentage as returning combat vets from Afghanistan and Iraq. It does not take an expert to document every fact and figure. Just go look," said Troy Eid, chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission. "The federal government is partially to blame. It tolerates what happens here in Alaska."

Eid calls Alaska's current framework, in which law enforcement is often managed from afar, "colonial," and has encouraged Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to more strenuously acknowledge tribes' authority.

Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, who currently serve as Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Center for Native American Youth and also co-chairs the advisory committee for the Task Force on American Indian / Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence, is optimistic the hard work to create safer communities and families in Indian country will yield results.

"This is not some mysterious illness for which we do not know the cure. It's a matter of will," Dorgan said.

Testimony continues all day Thursday. Anyone who wishes to comment, but cannot be present, is encouraged to send an email to the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, which is assisting the task force with the hearings, at

Contact Jill Burke at