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Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Hearing
~ Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thank you, Senator Dorgan.  I’m very pleased to be here with you, Ms. Shenandoah, and all the members of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence.  And thank you, President Enos, for your support and partnership in hosting this public hearing of the Advisory Committee.  Your remarks will resonate throughout the hearing today and your hospitality is greatly appreciated.

I want to recognize the United States Attorneys who are with us today:  Judge [John] Leonardo from the District of Arizona, John Walsh from the District of Colorado, Steven Yarbrough from the District of New Mexico, Mike Ormsby from the Eastern District of Washington and Amanda Marshall from the District of Oregon.   

And my thanks goes out to all of the U.S. Attorneys here for making the journey to join us today and for the leadership they are providing in their districts.

And let me extend my appreciation to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn.  Kevin, thank you for your presence and for your agency’s invaluable partnership with the Department of Justice.

I’d also like to acknowledge some of my Department of Justice colleagues who traveled with me from Washington – from the Office of Justice Programs, Mary Lou Leary, Bob Listenbee, and Jim Antal; from our Office of Tribal Justice, Tracy Toulou; and joining me from my office are Anna Martinez and Cindy Chang.  I’m very glad they could be here today.

And a special “thank you” to our witnesses and speakers.  We’re grateful for your participation, and we look forward to hearing your insights and experiences.

We’ve come together today – from communities throughout the southwest and from across the country – to address a serious and urgent problem: the problem of violence and its effect on American Indian and Alaska Native children. 

We know that more than 60 percent of all children in the United States are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to serious violent episodes as victims.  Almost 40 percent are direct victims of 2 or more violent acts. 

And for our children who are American Indian and Alaska Native, current research doesn’t give us a complete picture of its scope, but we know that they native are particularly vulnerable to encountering violence and trauma.  A 2008 report by the Indian Country Child Trauma Center calculated that native youth are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience trauma when compared with their non-native peers.

We know from our work in Indian Country that rates of crime and violence in some tribal areas are alarming, and we know that often it is children who see it, children who experience it, children who live with it.

Today’s hearing, the second of four, is part of the larger work President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have pursued to fulfill this nation’s trust responsibility to American Indians, to invest in Native communities, and work in partnership with sovereign tribal nations and Alaska Native communities to address the unique and persistent challenges they face.

And over the last four years we've made important progress:

Almost 1,000 grant awards to tribes totaling nearly $440 million over the last four years to improve public safety in tribal communities;

Our partnership with tribes to make sure they have the assistance and legal leverage they need to protect native women;

Our work to improve the safety of tribal communities by prosecuting more cases in Indian country -- up by more than 50 percent in the last four years.

And this hearing in particular grows out of the work that Attorney General Holder began three years ago with a new initiative he called "Defending Childhood."  The goal of Defending Childhood was to improve our knowledge about what works to reduce children’s exposure to violence and how to lessen the long-term adverse impacts of that exposure when it does occur.

And as part of that effort, as many of you know, the Attorney General appointed a national Task Force – co-chaired by my colleague Bob Listenbee – to identify ways to reduce children’s exposure to violence and to recommend policy changes at the federal level to meet that goal.

One of those recommendations was to create a special effort aimed at examining and addressing the exposure of American Indian and Alaska Native children to violence, in ways that recognize the unique government-to-government relationship between sovereign tribal nations and the United States -- a special effort that is embodied in this Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence.

Now the Task Force is different from most Washington blue ribbon panels you may have heard about. 

First, it's structure is different.  It's comprised of two groups.  The first is a Federal Working Group consisting of knowledgeable, high-ranking federal officials from the Departments of Justice, Interior and Health and Human Services -- folks like Kevin Washburn, Tracy Toulou, Amanda Marshall, Tim Purdon and Leslie Hagen -- names many of you know well because they work with tribal communities every day. 

And their charge is to cut through the organizational red tape that can sometimes bind our best efforts and work together to fix those things affecting native youth that we already know are broken -- things that we've long ago identified as problems that need attention -- and to pool resources, information and energy across our different agencies to take immediate action that will have a positive impact on kids’ lives right now. 

So over the last several months, this group has facilitated the delivery of educational services in BIA juvenile detention facilities; coordinated wrap-around services for child victims of crime who come in contact with the federal judicial system;  improved judicial training opportunities on the Indian Child Welfare Act; and so much more.

The second part of the task force is the group meeting here today – the Federal Advisory Committee.  Now, their job is to improve our understanding of native children’s exposure to violence and develop a strategic plan of action that will guide practitioners and policymakers at all levels.  They began their field work in December, when they held their first hearing in Bismarck, North Dakota. 

And here in Salt River, we will continue to explore this issue and to look for solutions.  Our goal today is to look specifically at the juvenile justice system and the role juvenile courts and detention facilities – at the tribal, state, and federal level – can play in supporting native children who have been exposed to violence. 

Sadly, we know that the road to involvement in the juvenile justice system is often paved by experiences of victimization and trauma.  The rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for Indian youth is almost triple the rate of the general population and is comparable to the rates of PTSD among soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The last thing we want is for our tribal, state, and federal juvenile justice institutions to be part of a tragic cycle of victimization and violence.  So we must make sure that our juvenile facilities are agents of positive change, not enablers of more self-destructive choices.

But we also have to talk about how we can work with tribes to figure out the best ways we can lessen the experiences of victimization and trauma experience by native youth in the first instance.  We have to explore approaches that recognize what's different about native youth; approaches that recognize that, according to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaska Natives aged 15- to 34-years and is 2.5 times higher than the national average for that age group;

Approaches that reflect an awareness about historical trauma -- an awareness about efforts to eliminate native culture such as forced relocation, removal of children who were sent to boarding schools, prohibitions on the practice of native language and cultural traditions, and the outlawing of traditional religious practices -- historical trauma that has affected multiple generations of First Americans;

  Approaches that reflect the reality in which our native youth are living.

Something we were reminded of just yesterday, when we met with 15 members of the Youth Council here -- young, bright, intelligent individuals, nearly all in high school and college-bound; individuals who are taking on leadership roles in their communities and who will be the next generation of leadership not just for their tribes but beyond as well.

By a show of hands, we asked them how many of them had a family member who had gone to college.  Only three hands went up.

And when we asked how many of them knew someone who had died from suicide.  Every hand was raised. 

We can do better than that.  We can reverse those numbers.  And more important, those young people?  They believe they can reverse those numbers. They believe that we can reverse the tide of despair and change history's course.

So I left that meeting feeling hopeful and confident about the work we’re doing – all of us – together, and committed to working even harder to reduce violence in our tribal communities.  Those young people aren't giving up.  And if they’re not giving up, we’re not giving up.

This work won’t be easy – and answers will not come quickly.  Indeed, we are looking not for the easy answer, but for long-term solutions – systemic solutions that will make a difference for our children.

Let us reaffirm our commitment to the safety and health of tribal communities.  And let us rededicate ourselves to giving native children a future unclouded by violence and brightened by hope.  This is the responsibility of every one of us.

Thank you for your commitment to this work.

 

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