DOJ hearing: We are failing the children of Indian Country

They experience more violence and can have post-traumatic stress disorder akin to Afghanistan War vets

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Daniel Cauffman is trying to get back to his roots, and it starts with his name.

Abused as a child by his stepmother, estranged from his father and still grieving the loss of his mother five years ago, 21-year-old Cauffman was one of the youngest experts to testify before a U.S. Department of Justice task force convened to study the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.

The daylong hearing, held Tuesday at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Scottsdale, attracted more than 160 witnesses, tribal leaders, policymakers and community members to discuss the response of juvenile systems to native children exposed to violence.

Daniel Cauffman, 21, was one of the younger people to testify at a Justice Department hearing on the exposure of Native American children to violence.
Kayla Gahagan for Al Jazeera America

It was the second of four hearings; task force members will also meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Anchorage, Alaska, later this year before making a recommendation to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

During a break in Tuesday’s hearing, Cauffman stepped out into the Arizona sun and ran a hand through a mop of thick brown hair.

“I’m about to get my tribal name, and everyone keeps saying I should grow out my hair,” he said. “I’m just now learning about my history and about Indian Country.”

A renewed interest in his home tribe and a goal to become a social worker are signs of hope, experts say, from a generation facing a number of deep-seated issues.

“Indian children are not well, and that’s the conversation we need to have,” said Theresa Pouley, a tribal court judge for the Tulalip Tribal Court on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state.

According to the 2009 National Sur­vey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), more than 60 percent of all children are exposed to violence. More than 40 percent of Native American and Alaska Native children experience two or more acts of violence and often those children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate that rivals soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

“One in three Indian women will be raped in their lifetime,” said Pouley. “I never want to look in my daughter’s eyes and hear her ask if she’ll be the one in three.”

‘They’re stealing our kids’

The number of native children who have experienced violence and then find themselves in the criminal justice system has perpetuated a cycle that needs to be broken by tribally based, multidisciplinary services, not detention centers, experts testified.

That has to be balanced with the law, said Bob Listenbee, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“We have an obligation to uphold state and federal laws,” he said, but instead of holding kids accountable in a way that helps them, juvenile systems include too many fast tracks to incarceration.

Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribe, which hosted the DOJ hearing.
Kayla Gahagan for Al Jazeera America

“Accountability doesn’t mean punishment,” he said. Victims and the public need to be protected, but “you have to treat children appropriately for their developmental stage.”

As part of his trip, Listenbee toured a local juvenile detention center.

“It was well run, but there were kids locked up for being truant, for running away,” he said. “And they are in a lockdown facility, handcuffed … We want to end that practice.”

Experts echoed his concern Tuesday, saying children end up in the very places that statistics show are the worst for them — incarcerated in state or federal detention centers, away from their homes, locked up often without counseling, or mental health or substance abuse support.

There are currently 566 federally recognized Indian tribes, and more than a third of their population lives on reservations.

Addie Rolnick, an author and law professor, testified that the current justice system for juveniles is a patchwork, spread out across tribal, state and federal jurisdictions. Children who violate the law can be taken to jail, the penitentiary, Bureau of Indian Affairs facilities, boot camps or military-style boarding schools far from home. Tribes, aiming to build short-term holding centers, end up creating a system where juveniles are locked up immediately and long term.

“They’re stealing our kids,” said Herb Yazzie, chief justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. “How do we get them back? We want them back.”

Rolnick said automatically locking up a child, particularly outside of his community, only exacerbates the trauma the child has gone through, costs more money and perpetuates the cycle of kids being away from their communities and families.

Rolnick’s solution for building better juvenile justice systems originates inside tribal communities, and maintains that such systems be purposefully developed around treatment options, early intervention, substance abuse programs and mental health programs.

“Jail, or incarceration, should be the last option,” she said.

Sovereignty and safety

Pouley and Carole Goldberg, a law professor and member of the Indian Law and Order Commission, testified alongside Rolnick, and spoke of the recommendations they provided while serving on the Indian Law and Order Commission, including allowing tribes to opt out of state and federal juvenile delinquency systems.

They also recommended that funding flow directly from the federal government to the tribes and that there should be a central federal agency to track information for all three jurisdictions.

Pouley said she is disturbed by the fact that agencies do not coordinate information about where children are being detained, which means native children are scattered across the United States in detention facilities — and no one is tracking them.

“Where are our children?” she asked.

Goldberg agreed.

“Tribes must be given notice when a child is placed in (another) system,” she said.

Tracy King, an Assiniboine from Montana, said he is on a mission to shut down all detention facilities.

“I have a hard time locking up youth,” he said. “They didn’t fail us; we failed them. Give me the $300 a day it takes to lock them up and I’ll make something of them … Kids are not throwaways.”

But advocate Lynnette Greybull, who has traveled around the country visiting reservations to study the effect of violence on women and children, said having tribes go at the problem alone might not be the answer either.

“What good is sovereignty if there’s no justice in sovereignty?” she asked. “I’d rather have safety for our people than the pride of our sovereignty … The women who are raped, they have nowhere to turn. They have no number to call.”

Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribe, said it is difficult but important to help children return to the traditional values if they are truly to be helped.

“We’re destroying our way of life with modern ingestion, and it’s nobody’s fault but our own,” she said.

Abby Abinanti, a chief judge in the Yurok Tribal Court, said everyone has gotten so caught up in applying for grants and following all the rules that they are forgetting the heart of the problems and solutions — people.

“A lot of these problems come from poverty and lack of opportunity,” she said. “… This is not who we are. If we can get that out of us, the things poverty brought, we can return to what sustained us for hundreds of years.”

William Thorne, a retired appellate court judge, said the gravest mistake is removing children from their families. While in state court, he watched as kids were taken from their mother because she was a victim of domestic violence.

“And they watched and she couldn’t protect them,” he said. “That’s how perverse our system has become. The parents’ rights are terminated and the kids are put with strangers; that’s absolutely backward.”

In most cases, he said, it’s the wrong solution.

“We remove them ‘just in case,’” he said. “That’s like if you go to the hospital with a hurt leg and they amputate ‘just in case.’ Or if you have an eye infection and they remove the eye ‘just in case’ … We take them away, but we don’t heal them. So when they become parents, they aren’t equipped.”

It’s a reality that Cauffman, who says he would like to be a father someday, realizes he might face. How, he is asked, will he break the cycle of violence, alcohol and drugs he has the potential to inherit from his parents?

“You live and you learn,” he said. “I still smoke and I still drink. I do battle about it. I beat myself up for it. I didn’t break the cycle. I’m doing some of the things right, just not all of the things right.”

The task force is accepting written testimony, which can be submitted to testimony@tlpi.org.

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