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Senate Committee Addresses Child Abuse and Family Violence in Indian Country

On March 15, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on a bill (S. 1899) to reauthorize the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act (P.L. 101-630). The measure, which provides for the reporting and reduction of child abuse and family violence incidents on Indian reservations, also would identify and remove barriers to reducing child abuse and would authorize the forensic examinations of certain children without parental consent.

Chair John McCain (R-AZ), the bill’s sponsor, remarked in his opening statement that not much has been done to implement the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act since its enactment in 1990, adding, “perpetrators know that reporting and response to child abuse cases are in a sorry state.” He emphasized the fact that incidents of child abuse and family violence have increased in Indian Country over recent years and stressed the importance of passing S. 1899.

“Child abuse anywhere in this country is a very serious situation,” said Ranking Member Byron Dorgan (D-ND). He recounted the story of a 19-year-old Native American woman he met who told him that after her father repeatedly raped her as a child, she contemplated suicide because she felt nothing could be done to help her. “We need to aggressively protect these kids,” he said.

Witnesses testifying on behalf of the administration discussed the success of existing programs and efforts to address the problem while acknowledging that more needs to be done. Patrick Ragsdale, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, testified that “the majority of governmental efforts regarding child abuse have focused on treatment or law enforcement options after the abuse has occurred. While these are important aspects of a comprehensive child protection program, of course, it is equally essential that we develop ways to assist Tribes in their ability to prevent the abuse before it occurs.”

“Indian families are strong, but many are besieged by the numbing effects of poverty, lack of economic resources, and limited opportunity,” lamented Robert McSwain, deputy director of the Indian Health Service (IHS). He highlighted a number of programs to help children and families that the IHS planned to continue if S. 1899 is enacted. “It will take resources, not only for IHS, but for a broad range of federal and tribal support to improve not just clinical services for abuse victims, but to positively affect the underlying economic and social conditions from which so much of the violence in Indian Country springs,” he said.

Acting Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) James H. Burrus testified that crimes against Indian children have been, and will remain, a top priority for the FBI. “During the period covering fiscal years 2003 through 2006, the FBI initiated 1,658 investigations and made 537 arrests in matters involving Indian child sexual abuse. During the same period, the FBI initiated 134 investigations and made 39 arrests in matters involving Indian child physical abuse,” he noted. Highlighting several programs the FBI has successfully implemented, he indicated that “there are still many unique obstacles in investigating crimes against children in Indian Country. Included among those are remote territories requiring substantial travel for investigation, long travel distances for access to technical expertise, reluctant witnesses due to close family structures in most tribal communities, and cultural sensitivities in tribal relations.”

Representatives of the Native American population voiced strong support for the provisions in S. 1899. Calling the measure essential, Ron Suppah, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, testified that “child abuse and family violence continue to devastate Indian communities. Because these problems tend to occur in private and the victims are frightened and silent, they do not attract much public attention. But their consequences are far reaching and long lasting.”

“While the realities that challenge efforts to improve protections for Indian children are daunting,” said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “S. 1899 provides some remedies for a number of these problems.” He explained that “rates of child abuse and neglect of Indian children are higher than that for many other ethnic and racial groups, and the system for protection of Indian children is fragmented and needing attention. We also know that resources to address this issue from prevention to prosecution are not nearly enough to get the job done. This is the reality for thousands of Indian children, their families, and communities. S. 1899 is an important step in the right direction and, if enacted, will definitely help, but there is much more that can be done.”

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