Appeared in Indian Country Issues – July 2014 Volume 62 Number 4

Today’s Tribal youth carry wounds of their ancestors, compounded by generations of atrocities committed against this nation’s Indigenous people, including historical traumatic campaigns of eradication, reservation assignment, boarding school[s], and relocation. Although they carry these wounds, these contemporary youth will be the first generation with an opportunity to heal from historical trauma.

Ivy Wright-Bryan, National Director of Native American Mentoring, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, in written testimony, Defending Childhood Initiative, Public Hearing 2, Attorney General’s Task Force, Children’s Exposure to Violence in Rural and Tribal Communities 31 (Jan. 30–Feb. 1, 2012), available at

My first real exposure to life on an Indian Reservation was when I worked as the Tribal Court Clerk for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon (CTGR) from 1993 to 1995. I was a law student at the time, and was drawn to Indian law both academically and from a social justice perspective. The CTGR had been terminated in 1954 and restored in 1983. In the years following restoration, the Tribe established essential governing departments, enabling it to begin economic expansion, which was primarily based on timber sales. When I started in 1993, many tribal members who lived on or around the checkerboard reservation experienced poverty, substance abuse, and unemployment. The “Tribal Court” was a room in a modular building the court shared with Tribal Council. Nearly every case that I heard in that courtroom during the two years I served as clerk involved child abuse and neglect. Tribal Child Protective Service (CPS) workers and community members worked tirelessly to ensure that children were safe, while also working to empower families to be resources for tribal children when parents failed. There were many failures. I saw kids victimized by intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, extreme neglect, exposure to severe substance abuse, and yes, I saw kids die. I also witnessed first-hand a tribe’s fierce commitment to its children and the love, strength, and security that tribes are uniquely able to give their people.

Today, the CTGR has used gaming profits as a catalyst for creating diverse economic opportunities in the surrounding community. Since 1997, through their charitable giving fund, CTGR has contributed almost $60 million to other tribes and non-profits. Close to 85 percent of that money has gone to support education, health services, and public safety. CTGR’s Tribal Court and Tribal Counsel no longer have to share space in a cramped modular. Instead, they are housed in an impressive Tribal Governance Building, located across a parking lot from a modern Tribal Health and Wellness Center and Social Services Department, which provides employment support, services to families and children, emergency assistance, and youth prevention programs. CTGR has also developed a professional and well-staffed tribal police force.

However, for most American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) children in the United States, the statistics paint a grim picture. These children, 64 percent of whom live outside Indian Country and 36 percent live within Indian Country:

  • Are twice as likely to live in poverty, compared with the general population.
  • Graduate from high school at a rate 17 percent less than the national average.
  • Have the highest rates of drug use, binge drinking, and cigarette use of any other racial or ethnic group.
  • Are twice as likely as their non-native peers to die before the age of 24.
  • Are 2.5 times more likely to experience trauma.
  • Have the highest per capita rate of violent victimization.
  • Experience abuse and neglect at twice the rate of Caucasian children.
  • Are more likely to be placed in foster care and to stay longer then non-native children.
  • Are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide.
  • Have rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that exceed the prevalence of PTSD for military personnel who served in the latest wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.
  • Are disproportionately represented in both the state and federal juvenile justice systems, where they also receive the most severe dispositions.

INDIAN LAW & ORDER COMMISSION, A ROADMAP FOR MAKING NATIVE AMERICA SAFER, REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT AND CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES 175 (2013), available at http://www.aisc.ucla. edu/iloc/report/index.html (Commission Report).

Additionally, because AI/AN women experience the highest rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in the nation, AI/AN children are being impacted by exposure to violence against women at a disproportionate rate.

These individual factors are compounded exponentially because these children are exposed to repeated losses and traumas as a result of the elevated rate of early, unexpected, and traumatic deaths among AI/AN people caused by accidents, suicide, homicide, and firearms. These contributing causes are found in the Native population at twice the rate of the population at large, and when alcoholism is determined to be a contributing factor to death, the rate among AI/AN people exceeds that of the general public by seven times. Michelle Sarche & Paul Spicer, Poverty and Health Disparities for American Indian and Alaska Native Children: Current Knowledge and Future Prospects, 1136 ANN. N. Y. ACAD. SCI. 126 (2008), available at

We know exposure to violence causes major disruptions of basic cognitive, emotional, and neurological function that are essential for optimal development. Children exposed to violence suffer lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm. They endure difficulties forming healthy attachments, engage in aggressive and regressive behaviors, and experience anxiety and depression. They are more susceptible to intimate partner violence, delinquency, repeated victimization, and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Finally, exposure to violence can impair a child’s ability to form and maintain safe and healthy relationships as an adult, contributing to the continuance of the cycle. David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, Richard Ormrod, Sherry Hamby & Kristen Kracke, Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey, JUV. JUST. BULL. 1, 3 (2009), available at es1/ojjdp/227744.pdf.

Since Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative in 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been working with subject-matter experts and reviewing research to take n in-depth look at the epidemic of children exposed to violence in America. One aspect of the Defending Childhood Initiative was the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, convened in October 2011. The Task Force was comprised of 13 leading experts, including child welfare and juvenile justice practitioners, child and family advocates, academic experts, and licensed clinicians. The Task Force conducted four public hearings in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Detroit, and Miami, and provided a final report to the Attorney General in late 2012. The report includes the Task Force’s findings and comprehensive policy recommendations. It outlines strategies to prevent children from being exposed to violence and for healing the deleterious effects experienced by children who are exposed to violence in this country.

What the Task Force found is that more than 60 percent of children in the United States have suffered exposure to violence. The particular exposure may include witnessing or being the victim of intimate partner violence, child abuse, homicide, suicide, sexual abuse, and community violence. Ten percent of children in the United States have endured some form of abuse or neglect. One in sixteen has been the victim of sexual abuse. This exposure to violence has a significant harmful impact on the mental and emotional development of our youth. ROBERT L. LISTENBEE JR. ET AL., REPORT OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S NATIONAL TASK FORCE ON CHILDREN EXPOSED TO VIOLENCE 27–34 (2012), available at

Tribal youth experience more violence than youth in other communities. In addition, on many reservations, the majority of the population is under the age of 25. The focus of the Defending Childhood Initiative on AI/AN children is part of DOJ’s larger law enforcement initiative in Indian Country. Id. at 35. The 2012 Task Force Report concluded that AI/AN children experience “extreme levels of violence” and are in desperate need of supportive services. The Task Force also recognized that the issues of Native children exposed to violence were so unique, complex, and significant, that they could not be adequately addressed by the broader inquiry that was their focus. Therefore, the second of the Task Force’s 10 recommendations requested the appointment of a new federal task force to examine the particular needs of AI/AN children exposed to violence. Id. at 38. The recommendation also included priorities to be addressed by the new task force, namely:

  1. Improving the identification and appropriate treatment of AI/AN children who have been exposed to violence
  2. Helping AI/AN communities and tribes rise out of violence, and involving AI/AN youth in solutions
  3. Examining and addressing the needs of AI/AN children living outside reservations, in urban or rural settings off AI/AN lands
  4. Involving a consultation process consistent with the government-to-government relationship between the Federal Government and tribal governments, and
  5. Paying special attention to the incarceration of AI/AN children who are convicted and sentenced in the federal judicial system.

At the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the creation of the Attorney General’s Task Force on AI/AN Children Exposed to Violence. This task force is anchored by a federal working group that includes U.S. Attorneys and officials from the Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Justice, as well as an advisory committee of experts appointed to examine the scope and impact of violence facing AI/AN children. The aim of the task force is to make policy recommendations to Attorney General Holder on ways to address these issues.

Like the first task force on Children Exposed to Violence, the task force created in 2013 is comprised of leading experts, including practitioners, child and family advocates, academic experts, and licensed clinicians. Senator Byron Dorgan, Board of Advisors, Center for Native American Youth, former U.S. Senator, and chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; and Joanne Shenandoah, Iroquois, composer and musical artist, serve as the co-chairs of the Advisory Committee. The Tribal Law and Policy Institute is providing technical assistance support for the task force, including assisting the advisory committee in conducting public hearings and listening sessions, and providing primary technical writing services for the final report.

The federal working group includes officials from key agencies involved in issues related to AI/AN Children Exposed to Violence. Agency representation includes the following: DOJ (including U.S. Attorneys Tim Purdon, North Dakota; Brendan Johnson, South Dakota; and Barry Grissom, Kansas), DOI, and the Department of Health and Human Services. I co-chair the working group along with Tracy Toulou, Director of DOJ’s Office of Tribal Justice (OTJ). As DOJ supports this new task force focused on Native children exposed to violence, this working group is in an ideal position to take immediate steps and make meaningful, lasting improvements for AI/AN children.

Because juvenile systems and services to children have been the subject of so much study, the working group was able to assist the subcommittee by reviewing and analyzing past efforts, beginning with federal endeavors, to glean relevant findings and apply them to efforts to meet our current goals. This review has been completed and includes a list of pertinent publications about the number and status of AI/AN children in the health, justice, and welfare systems. This compilation will serve as a reference tool as efforts of the working group continue. To date, the working group has met 11 times since its first meeting on June 27, 2013. The working group has already completed the following tasks:

  1. Office of Justice Programs (OJP) has developed a list of the agencies (federal, state, tribal, other) and resources generally responsible for, or involved in, health, safety, and welfare matters affecting AI/AN children. The White House Council on Indian Affairs has undertaken an inventory initiative. The results of that larger, executive branch-wide inventory will serve the purpose of this goal from a broader perspective. The results of that inventory will be available to all executive branch agencies.
  2. As of August 2013, the working group has partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) to ensure that educational services for juveniles are being provided in two of the three BIA facilities. The third detention facility is currently closed for renovation. BIA and BIE have agreed that as of the 2014–2015 school year, and going forward, BIE will take over the responsibility for educational services in all BIA facilities. A Memorandum of Agreement between BIA and BIE is being drafted. BIE will obtain progress reports from the current contractor to track educational services in BIA facilities.
  3. The working group is focusing on ensuring that trauma-informed counseling services are available in BIA facilities. A subgroup that includes DOJ, DOI, Indian Health Services (IHS), and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) representatives has been formed to focus on this issue.
  4. An initial assessment has been completed to identify the availability of existing services to Native children exposed to violence and, specifically, victims of crime, from the time they are identified through the conclusion of any criminal prosecution. As a next step, members of the working group are conducting a gap analysis to determine the effectiveness of existing services and identify unmet needs for all child victims who interface with the federal justice system.
  5. Working group members from OTJ and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys have reviewed the existing IHS/BIA Handbook on Child Protection in Indian Country and identified outdated information. A subgroup led by BIA and SAMHSA are working to update the information and finalize a usable current handbook, which will be made available through BIA social services.
  6. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has completed a survey of all contract facilities to determine whether they provide culturally appropriate services to tribal youth in detention. The results have been summarized and sent out to the working group for review. Based on the results of this survey, the working group is partnering with the BOP and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to generate best practices guidance and to begin working with providers to ensure consistency with these best practices. A subgroup including BOP, OTJ, and OJP, is conducting an analysis of best practices and looking into the possibility of contracting with BIA or tribal facilities to incarcerate tribal youth.
  7. In order to institute focused and culturally relevant training for federal, state, and tribal criminal justice and social service personnel on Trauma Informed Care, Forensic Interviewing of Child and Adolescent Victims and Witnesses, and Mandatory Reporting Obligations under Federal Law, we have completed an inventory of training opportunities that has been disseminated to the working group. DOJ’s National Indian Country Training Initiative, in coordination with OJP and OJS, is currently developing a training calendar that includes focused training on each of these issues.
  8. As a corollary to number 7 above, the National Indian Country Training Initiative within DOJ’s Office of Legal Education has produced a video on mandatory reporter training to be used in all relevant DOJ components, and it may be easily adapted for use by other federal agencies.
  9. The working group has coordinated with the FBI to conduct a system review on background checks for providers in Indian Country and to identify opportunities for enhanced efficiency and reliability. OJP will continue to work with constituents to determine if there are additional background check-related issues to address.
  10. While researching training opportunities to expand judicial exposure to, and understanding of, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), working group members learned that the National Resource Center on Legal and Judicial Issues, in partnership with the National Resource Center for Tribes and Casey Family Programs, is currently developing a National Model Judicial ICWA Curriculum containing seven modules that cover ICWA. The content is nearing completion. A subgroup, including OTJ, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon, and other working group members, are reviewing the draft curriculum to provide input.
  11. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has initiated a public awareness campaign in the area of AI/AN children exposed to violence as part of the Defending Childhood Initiative.

The AI/AN Task Force hearings were held on December 9, 2013, in Bismarck, North Dakota; on February 11, 2014, in Phoenix, Arizona; on April 16–17, 2014, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and on June 11–12, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska. The hearings were open to the public and offered an opportunity for public comment. The topics addressed at the hearings included:

  • AI/AN children exposed to domestic violence and sexual and physical abuse
  • Response by multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) to children exposed to violence
  • Healing through trauma-informed interventions
  • Native youth in federal, state, and tribal juvenile justice systems
  • Promising approaches in juvenile justice
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act
  • Gangs and sex trafficking
  • Violence in tribal schools, and
  • Meeting the challenges associated with addressing violence in Alaska Native villages.

Based on the testimony at these public hearings, comprehensive research, and extensive input from experts, advocates, impacted families, the federal working group, and communities nationwide, the Advisory Committee will issue a final report to the Attorney General this fall. The report will present the committee’s findings and comprehensive policy recommendations. It will serve as an outline of strategies to prevent and remedy AI/AN children’s exposure to violence.

There are 46 U.S. Attorneys’ offices (USAOs) with Indian Country responsibility. Each office has engaged in government-to-government consultations with tribal leaders and law enforcement partners and has created Indian Country Operational Plans. Children’s exposure to violence is a recurring theme at many tribal consultations. Operational Plans include USAO participation in, and support of, MDTs comprised of federal and tribal prosecutors, law enforcement, CPS workers, and medical professionals. MDTs and USAOs shall have a child-centered focus concentrated on creating a coordinated system-of-care response that eases the damage to children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect. Additionally, some USAOs, including my office in Oregon, have worked with tribes and IHS to open Child Abuse Assessment Centers to serve Native children on the reservation in a culturally appropriate and trauma-informed manner.

Around the country, USAOs have partnered with sovereign tribal governments in their districts to create a host of innovative solutions that support and empower tribal courts, law enforcement, CPS, and other tribal stakeholders to take care of their children. We still have plenty of work ahead. When I visit the Warm Spring Reservation, a community that experiences the highest crime rate in Oregon, I am continually struck by the fact that the life expectancy of tribal members on that reservation is about 55 years of age. A local IHS doctor recently put a positive spin on that dismal piece of data by reminding me that 55 is an improvement over the life expectancy 10 years ago. We can do better.

There is plenty of bad news about the disproportionate rates of Native children exposed to violence. There is also good news about the inspiring work of federal prosecutors, law enforcement, and tribes working in partnership to combat that violence. We have a long road ahead. U.S. Attorneys across the country will continue bringing people together to address children’s exposure to violence by developing localized initiatives. Through summits, meetings, and training sessions, we are learning what works and what doesn’t work in our tribal communities, and are advocating for solutions to prevent and reduce violence. We are only just beginning to comprehend the effect that exposure to violence has on children generally, and on AI/AN children, specifically. If we are to change the outcomes for kids in Indian Country, we must focus our combined efforts on AI/AN children who are exposed to violence. If we do, those efforts will help create a different narrative for these children, families, and communities in the future. If we don’t seize this opportunity to build on what we now know, we will miss our chance to build a world where all children have the opportunity to grow up with dignity, well-being, and peace.

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we will make for our children.” Tatanka Lotanka-Sitting Bull, PARTICULATE MATTERS (Sept. 14, 2012), available at http://kosmicdebris.blogspot .com/2012/09/let-us-put-our-minds-together-and-see.html.❖