The Shocking Rates Of Violence And Abuse Facing Native American Kids

Darrell Follette and Ida Follette recount the day their daughter committed suicide on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL ALBANS
Darrell Follette and Ida Follette recount the day their daughter committed suicide on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL ALBANS

A panel of experts has released a lengthy report detailing the extent of the public health issues plaguing American Indian children who live on tribal land, concluding that these kids’ lives are being “destroyed by relentless violence and trauma.”

According to the researchers, American Indian kids suffer from disproportionately high rates of abuse and neglect, and most of them aren’t receiving any treatment for those issues. They experience post-traumatic stress disorder at roughly the same rate as service members returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. And they’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24.

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“Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and victimization,” the report states. “Domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are widespread. Continual exposure to violence has a devastating impact on child development and can have a lasting impact on basic cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions.”

To remedy these issues, the group is pressuring Attorney General Eric Holder to extend more legal protections to children on Native American reservations, including allowing the government to criminally prosecute non-Indian people who commit violence against kids in tribes.

There are 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes across the country. Under a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, however, those tribes are prohibited from exercising criminal jurisdiction over outside defendants — something that’s historically hampered their ability to crack down on sexual violence.

Lats year, with the passage of an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Native American women gained these type of protections from domestic violence and abuse. The Justice Department has been rolling out a pilot program to integrate this new legal standard on some tribal land. Now, if women on those reservations report an assault perpetrated by a non-Indian, the tribe’s police chief will have more recourse to go after that perpetrator.

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But VAWA only applies to women — and doesn’t extend the same type of protection to American Indian children who are victims of abuse or assault. That’s a loophole that the expert task force, which was assembled by the Attorney General’s office specifically to provide a better snapshot of the issues with violence on reservations, wants to close. In communities where the rates of sexual abuse are high and the youth suicide rate has been climbing, experts want to find a better way to support young people.

The new report puts forth several recommendations for strengthening the safety net for Native American kids, including increasing the Department of Justice’s funding for tribal justice programs and establishing a federal Native American Affairs Office that employs an official dedicated to overseeing issues related to minors living on reservations.

Some of the proposed policy changes in the report can be accomplished through executive actions, while others require new state and federal legislation. But it’s possible there will be some political resistance. During the recent fight over VAWA, the added protections for Native American woman were a sticking point for Congressional Republicans, who didn’t want to extend tribal authority. Before VAWA was eventually re-authorized, Republicans refused to pass the expanded version and allowed the law to lapse in the first time since its 1994 passage.

Despite the potential political controversy, the authors of the report state their objectives in terms of basic civil rights and justice, noting that “lives are at stake.”

“This is a defining moment for our nation and for this generation,” the report concludes. “How we choose to deal with the current public safety crisis in Native America — a crisis largely of the Federal government’s own making over more than a century of failed laws and policies — can set our generation apart from the legacy that remains one of great unfinished challenges of the Civil Rights Movement.”