The Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to violence was created in 2013 based upon a recommendation from the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. The Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence is anchored by an advisory committee consisting of federal and non-federal experts on the topic. Last month the advisory committee fulfilled its charge in publishing policy recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder that address issues around AI/AN children exposed to violence. These recommendations are contained in the advisory committee’s report published last month, Ending Violence So Children Thrive (click on the image below to access the pdf).
The advisory committee carried out four hearings and six listening sessions nationwide to learn from key practitioners, advocates, academicians, policy makers, and the public about the issue of AI/AN children exposed to violence in the U.S. The advisory committee was also directed to “gather information on promising and evidence-based practices that could benefit these children and their communities.”
There is a huge need for promising and evidence-based practices for violence prevention in AI/AN communities, reflected in grim statistics that show the vulnerability of AI/AN women and children to physical and sexual violence. And yet research about the violence faced by AI/AN children remains incredibly sparse, making it difficult for tribes and urban Indian organizations to compete for grant funding for prevention and treatment efforts that are not “evidence based,” or to develop community-led interventions that do not simply rely on anecdotes and guesswork.
Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive contains 31 policy recommendations that cover a lot of terrain, spanning from a directive to establish a Native American Affairs Office within the White House Domestic Policy Council to calling on the Secretary of Health and Human Services to increase and support access to culturally appropriate behavioral health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services in AI/AN communities. The report states that “many tribal communities are developing and implementing culturally based prevention and intervention programs” yet most tribes “do not have the resources necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs” (p. 62).
The question then is, what difference can top-down policies actually make for families if so little remains known about what’s happening on the ground?
Despite having this understanding, many of the advisory committee’s policy recommendations are formed around the assumption that strengthening tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty are key to preventing violence exposure among AI/AN children. This assumption is most prominent in the report chapter focusing on Alaska, where four of the committee’s five policy recommendations have to do with Congress reinstating Indian Country in Alaska and providing financial support for tribes to develop their civil and criminal justice systems, including their own police forces. Most of these recommendations were lifted verbatim from the Indian Law and Order Commission’s 2013 Final Report. The thinking is that if tribes had a land base over which to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction and a tribal police presence to enforce law, then Alaska Native children and communities would be safer.
The issue isn’t whether or not this should happen (tribes should decide for themselves) but the assumptions about what effect these changes in jurisdiction would actually have on reducing violence. The report points out that Alaska State Troopers have a full-time presence in less than half of the tribal communities, and that this inequitable access to justice can be mitigated by reinstating Indian Country. Yet access to justice and violence prevention are not synonymous. Criminal justice systems and police respond to violent crime (they’re usually reactionary, and that’s part of the problem), they don’t necessarily prevent it from happening.
And when it comes to issues like child sexual abuse, law enforcement and the courts are rarely in the picture because these crimes are hardly ever reported, even in the mainstream U.S. population. Nunavut, Canada provides a counterpoint to the advisory committee’s assumption that tribal police and justice systems will help prevent violence against children. RCMP officers have a full-time presence in each of Nunavut’s 25 communities, yet the crime rate in that majority Inuit jurisdiction has doubled since the territory was created.
Nunavut public defenders will tell you that preventing violence against children in this jurisdiction where almost half the population has experienced child sexual abuse, is much more complex than whether or not there’s a police presence in town. In the words of public defender Mandy Sammurtok:
So we’ve got this individual who has grown up thinking that that life is normal. And then we’ve got a system where there’s no treatment available for an individual. There’s no substance abuse treatment available. There’s no mental health treatment, and we also live in little fish bowls where basically the RCMP know everything that’s going on. And that’s fine; it’s good to be safe in a community. So, you’ve got a person who has lived this life and a lot of times, a lot of my clients say, “Oh yeah, and Mandy, uncle whoever” or “that guy down the street, he molested me.” That’s, a lot of times where this is going in a lot of my clients’ lives. And I say it all the time: my client, although he has a victim, he’s also a victim. There are no services available for my client. He didn’t have anywhere to go before he got to the court system. I would always hope that the justice system would be the last stop for an individual. But unfortunately in Nunavut, the justice system is the first stop (Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., 2014).
Yet in Alaska, the assumption that reinstating Indian Country will make Alaska Native communities safer seems to be gaining traction among Alaska Native tribes. This despite the fact that, as the committee’s own report acknowledges, lower 48 tribal law enforcement has always been chronically underfunded. The advisory committee’s report states that “There is a vital connection between inherent Tribal sovereignty and protecting AI/AN children” (p. 43). This connection is easier to see when it comes to strengthening child tribal protection systems, providing greater Indian Child Welfare Act oversight, and securing mandatory rather than discretionary federal funding for tribal violence prevention programs — all issue addressed in the advisory committee’s policy recommendations. These are defensible recommendations, and Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive advances important messaging about the need for trauma informed care, research, and partnership building.
However the argument that reinstating Indian Country in Alaska and beefing up tribal law enforcement and tribal justice systems will prevent violence against children is more political ploy than solution. It is important to push back on this assumption if we hope to seriously address the pandemic of physical and sexual violence too many of our Alaska Native children are experiencing. We need only look at Canadian Inuit communities that have had a full-time police presence for decades to know that the issues run much deeper. Alaska Native communities do need law enforcement, and empowering tribes to take on this responsibility seems to be the most viable solution. But it is misleading and irresponsible to overstate the role of law enforcement and the courts in preventing violence and other social challenges.
Keeping the focus on real issues, such as the huge gaps in research, mental health services and support and housing that exist in the state, is a start.