The U.S. Department of Justice published a report last week that is highly critical of the State of Alaska’s treatment of Alaska Natives and calls on state and federal governments to do much more for the children of First Peoples.
Titled “Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive,” the report was written by the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. Among the 11 members of the Advisory Committee is Valerie “Nurr’araaluk” Davidson, a Yup’ik woman who served as Senior Director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, currently a Trustee of the First Alaskans Institute, and newly minted head of the Department of Health and Social Services under Governor Walker.
The Role of Schools
While adults and even teenagers may use drugs or alcohol to cope with violence, young children have to employ other tactics. “One of the coping skills these children might use,” the report suggests, “is vigilance (staying awake while the abuser is awake), which means they are unable to get the sleep they need.” This translates into poor performance in school or truancy.
Schools are, therefore, a likely candidate for early identification of exposure to violence, which the report says is the “first step toward healing and recovery.” Yet, “tribal child-serving systems and school staff are often unaware of the impact trauma has on the psychological and emotional health of their students.”
The Advisory Committee believes that the federal trust responsibility — the government’s legal obligation to protect First Peoples’ treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources — “should include ensuring that all service providers [e.g., teachers] attending to the needs of [American Indian/Alaska Native] children receive appropriate training and technical assistance.”
Teachers would be wise to identify victims of violence early. Alaska Natives have a high school dropout rate of 50 percent.
“Schools that are trauma-informed can establish safe and nurturing environments where children can learn,” the report says succinctly. The Advisory Committee recommends that a newly created White House Native American Affairs Office develop after-school programs for Native youth that are culturally based and involve parents.
To this point, there have been cultural barriers to the federal government’s efforts in schools. For example, in a listening session in Bethel, the principal of Bethel Regional High School, Janelle Vanasse, reported that a grant was contingent upon using curriculum that was “not culturally or geographically appropriate. One requirement of the approach was to display health or relevant statistics on billboards in a targeted community; however that public display of information approach was neither helpful nor respectful of local culture in Bethel.”
Violence Against Women
Violence against women is particularly damaging to the Alaska Native community. The state’s response is an area that drew sharp criticism from the Advisory Committee.
The report cites the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium statistic that half of Alaska Native women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Rates of domestic violence in some villages are ten times higher than the rest of the U.S. Further, the report continues, “Alaska Native women suffer from forcible sexual assault at the highest rate of any population in the United States. They comprise 19 percent of the Alaska state females, but 47 percent of reported rape victims. An Alaska Native woman is sexually assaulted every eighteen hours.”
Statistics like these have drawn national attention, including that of CNN’s John Sutter, who discussed the Choose Respect campaign with former Gov. Sean Parnell. But the Advisory Committee makes no mention of the campaign, presumably because it has had no impact on the statistics.
The report notes that rural Alaska is covered by only 370 state troopers. While Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) pick up some of the slack, and who this year got the go-ahead from the legislature to receive firearms training, there are 75 villages without any law enforcement. The Advisory Committee recommends each village have at least one law enforcement official.
The aforementioned Indian Law and Order Commission report, “A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” was also critical of the State of Alaska’s position toward rural Alaska. That report prompted Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty to send a response to Commission Chair Troy Eid disputing Eid’s accusation that Alaska practices a “colonial model (of justice) that results in more violent crime.”
In defending the state, Geraghty revealed that state policy required tribal domestic violence protection orders be filed in state court prior to enforcement by state troopers. U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West responded in a letter, quoted at length in the report, that federal law requires the state to respond to a protection order regardless of whether it has been filed in state court.
“Unfortunately, Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty has not yet responded to Tony West’s July 28, 2014 letter and there is no indication on the Alaska state websites that this policy has been changed to comply with federal law,” the Advisory Committee report reads. “Consequently, Alaska Native women and children continue to risk increased exposure to violence on a daily basis as a direct result of this misguided state of Alaska policy.”
In a Washington Post article about rural Alaska law enforcement, Elizabeth Medicine Crow joked darkly that “The fastest way to get law enforcement here is to shoot a moose.”
With such a slow response from the state, self-reliance is the only way to escape violence for many Alaska Native women. This is rarely easy. “If female victims seek to leave for safety purposes, doing so requires very public and often delayed travel by plane or ferry,” testified Richard Peterson, President of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska.
While the Advisory Committee had few good things to say about the State of Alaska with regard to domestic violence, it repeatedly mentioned the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2014 (S. 1474). Sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and co-sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the bill would, in part, remove Section 910 of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Begich and Murkowski both sit on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
VAWA provided tribal courts with jurisdiction in domestic violence cases where the offender was not of Native descent. The State of Alaska lobbied to exclude Alaska Natives from this and other VAWA protections. The result was Sec. 910, which applies to all Alaska Native communities except Metlakatla.
Begich maintains that repealing Sec. 910 is a priority of his during the lame duck session, but it will be incredibly difficult to make it happen. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has not sponsored a companion bill in the House.
Diaspora of Alaska Native Youth
Domestic violence directly affects children in multiple ways. Often, the report says, children are removed from the home when one parent abuses another. The non-offending parent is charged with “failure to protect” the child.
While officials prefer to place children with a relative, sometimes this is not possible, meaning they are moved to licensed foster homes outside the community. The system of licensing is onerous, making it harder for community members to become foster families and keep children connected.
Alaska Native children appear in foster care at three times the rate of the general population, and the disproportionality is growing. Virtually all of these children have been exposed to violence,” the report says. “Many of them have been direct victims of that violence.” What’s worse, being in foster care makes them statistically more likely to be subject to maltreatment.
“Once children are in the system they are lost, not only to their parents, but to their extended families and communities,” Andy Teuber testified. Consequently, “Alaska Natives fear to call for help. They fear that instead of receiving genuine assistance, they might lose their children to the state welfare system that too often does not comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)… In other places people seek equal protection of the law. In many Alaska Native communities there is no protection of the law.”
ICWA mandated placement of children “in foster or adoptive homes that will reflect the unique values of Indian culture,” the report reads.
Returning to historical trauma, “What tribes describe as having the most negative impact was the forced removal of Indian children from home and placement in boarding schools far from their families and communities,” says the Advisory Committee. “The removal of generations of children over time has disrupted once well-established and venerable parenting practices.”
And it continues. Quoted in the report, retired Utah Appellate Court Judge William Thorne, Jr., summed up the problem in his Phoenix testimony:
Our goal should—instead of just simply suppressing conduct, should be to heal the victims. I mean, in my 34 years as a judge I’ve seen second, third, fourth generation kids coming out of foster care. And they’re coming out of foster care because we didn’t do a good job of healing them. We took them away from their families. We removed them from the harms that they were exposed to. But we didn’t heal them. It’s very much like saying, “Just in case.” Well, when you check into a hospital, you don’t expect them to amputate your leg just in case. When you have an eye infection, you don’t expect them to take the eye just in case. When we take children from their families and we take children away from their communities just in case, what we’ve really done is set up the next generation of children to come through the system.
I think what we have is a direct result of a hundred years of the boarding-school philosophy, then translated into removal philosophy, and then the predominant notion in this country of removing children as a way of intervening and solving problems when the family has problems. We take them away, but we don’t heal them. So that when they become parents themselves, they are not equipped. For good reason most of us parent the way we were parented, including the fact that some things happened to us that we swore would never, ever happen to our own kids. But I still hear my father’s voice come out of my mouth sometimes. And that’s scary. We parent as we were parented. Well, when we put kids in boarding schools, where do they learn to parent? When we put kids in foster care, where do they learn to parent? How do they learn to cope with the struggles when they’ve never seen an adult struggle with problems and overcome them?
Sarah Hicks Kastelic, Deputy Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, told the Task Force in Anchorage that removal “should be the last line of defense, after all other attempts have been made to strengthen the family so that a child can remain in his or her own home… The historic trauma that systematic removal has generated in Native societies makes each removal of a Native child from her home, family and community a unique form of violence.”
Like the self-reliant women who have to remove themselves from violence in the absence of state law enforcement, many Alaska Native youth also flee from violence. Janelle Vanasse testified that some young people take up “couch surfing” in middle school.
Many make their way to Anchorage and are confronted with homelessness. “With high rates of abuse, paired with harsh weather conditions, our youth are at extreme risk for sexual abuse, prostitution and exploitation,” testified Diana Bline. Bline is Director of Program Services at Covenant House Alaska.
“Over the years, we’ve seen an influx of young, Alaska Native victims from rural Alaska, who are coerced and vulnerable to predators,” said Bline. “Typical cases from rural Alaska look a little bit different. They usually include that they are lured to Anchorage by family members or boyfriends. This is referred to as ‘tundra pimping.’”
Amnesty International, as cited in the report, found Alaska Natives are almost ten times more likely to experience sexual assault in Anchorage than other populations.
One solution requested by many who testified was more safe houses for youth. “Providing a safe place where violence-exposed youth can focus on healing is the first step toward helping a young person recover from trauma,” the report reads.