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.
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.
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.