Stark look at abuse and violence aimed at Native American children

Experts give wrenching personal testimony at DOJ hearing while detailing how kids are more at risk and get less help

Jesse Taken Alive of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe speaks in front of the Attorney General's Task Force on American Indian Children Exposed To Violence on Monday, in Bismarck, N.D. Three more hearings are scheduled to be held next year, in Phoenix, Ariz., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and Anchorage, Alaska.
Tom Stromme/AP

BISMARCK, N.D. — Lenny Hayes was just a kid when it started. To escape, he simply closed his eyes and pretended that the sexual abuse he was experiencing wasn’t really happening.

“When I am being victimized over and over, I am looking down from the ceiling and I could see my body being taken advantage of,’’ he said Monday, recalling the abuse to task members of a public hearing convened by the U.S. Department of Justice to study the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.

In one of the more emotional pieces of testimony, Hayes recounted mental, physical and sexual abuse as a 6-year-old child on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation in the northeastern corner of South Dakota. He remembered how he would tell himself, “Poor little boy, it will soon be over.’’

Hayes, who is now a mental-health therapist in Minnesota, told task force members he is an example of children’s ability to overcome abuse and violence, if given the support and right resources for healing.

“I am no longer a victim; I am a survivor,” he said. “I am choosing to grow, learn and move forward.”

But Hayes’ story is rare, experts say.

More at risk

According to the 2009 National Sur­vey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), more than 60 percent of children are exposed to violence. Incidents on reservations are even higher, said Lonna Hunter, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and expert witness at the Bismarck hearing. She is the project coordinator of the Council on Crime and Justice.

Almost two dozen experts — including professors, legislators, tribal leaders, attorneys and representatives from organizations working to solve the issue of violence perpetrated against children on reservations – joined Hunter in the first of four hearings that will be followed next year with hearings in Phoenix, Ariz., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Anchorage, Alaska. The task force will make a recommendation to U.S. Attorney Eric Holder. 

The disproportionate numbers of native children experiencing violence and then not receiving care and support is especially alarming when compared with children of other communities, she said.

A number of issues including the need for more research that is tribally-directed, the need for culturally-based solutions for healing, funding for tribally-centered programs, jurisdiction issues and stigma for families with children who have reported abuse have plagued reservations for years, making it next to impossible for children to heal and develop properly, she said.

One of the biggest issues to tackle is the inadequate number of law-enforcement officials to respond to domestic abuse calls or reports of violence or sexual assault, she said.

“For example, on the Rosebud reservation, there were 25,000 calls to law enforcement and at least two children a day are victims of crime,” Hunter said.

Data from the Wind River Reservation estimates that at least 66 percent of families have a history of domestic violence and at least 20 percent have been sexually abused, she added.

'We know what to do'

The task force is co-chaired by Byron Dorgan, a former North Dakota senator, and Iroquois musician Joanne Shenandoah. It was established after the Justice Department convened a panel to study the effects of violence on all children. After hearing compelling testimony in New Mexico, they realized they would need a separate panel for the effects on native children, said Bob Listenbee, from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The work of the new task force will be considered alongside work done by a joint federal work group.

Listenbee, who served on the original task force, said last year’s recommendation included a four-part process, with children identified, screened, assessed and treated.

“There is science that shows that children traumatized by violence can get back on to the developmental path,” he said.

Another part of the recommendation includes training for all adults in contact with children, Listenbee said, including doctors, attorneys and teachers, as well as a major public awareness campaign.

“Because people just don’t understand,” the urgency or scope of the problem, he said.

Several of Monday’s speakers asked the task force to seek solutions that are rooted in native culture and values.

“It needs to be grassroots and it needs to be run by natives,” said Barbara Bettelyoun, a psychologist from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “Healing needs to include teaching and practices of our native ways.”

Dorgan said there’s no reason they can’t find and implement solutions.

“I get so angry and upset,” he said. “This is not some mysterious illness … We know what to do.”

The Tribal Law and Policy Institute is accepting written testimony for the task force, which can be submitted to testimony@tlpi.org.

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