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Associate Attorney Tony West Speaks at the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Hearing


Anchorage, AK
United States

Thank you, Senator Dorgan, and thank you, President Stephan for your invocation. I am very pleased to join you, Ms. Shenandoah, and the members of the Advisory Committee of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence for this fourth and final hearing.

It is an honor to be here in Alaska with leaders and representatives of many of Alaska’s Native villages. I would like to give special thanks to Advisory Committee member Valerie Davidson, the Senior Director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, who was so instrumental in facilitating the Committee’s visits to native villages this week and who provided so many thoughtful recommendations for witnesses at today’s hearing.

Thank you to U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler for hosting us in her district, and I extend my appreciation to U.S. Attorneys Michael Ormsby from the Eastern District of Washington and Mike Cotter from the District of Montana for joining us today. And let me also recognize Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. Kevin, thank you for your support of this Advisory Committee’s work and for your agency’s invaluable partnership with the Department of Justice.

Also joining us today are several members of the Task Force’s Federal Working Group, which includes high-ranking federal officials from the Departments of Justice, Interior, and Health and Human Services. I want to thank them for being here and for the work they are doing to improve the lives of Native children in concrete ways, from making sure culturally appropriate programming and services are available for tribal youth in BIA juvenile detention facilities to coordinating wrap-around services for child victims of crime. We very much appreciate their continued work.

And a very special “thank you” to our witnesses and speakers. We’re grateful for your participation and your willingness to share your experiences, thoughts, and insights.

I think it was the French philosopher Camus who wrote about this being a world in which children suffer, but maybe, through our actions, we can lessen the number of suffering children. And if you do not do this, then who will do this?

We have come to Anchorage to lessen the number of suffering children. We come to continue the important work we began six months ago when this Advisory Committee held its first hearing in Bismarck. Our charge was to examine the intolerable levels of violence that American Indian and Alaska Native children suffer -- the violence they encounter all too often in their homes and communities, the collateral victimization they suffer when someone abuses a parent, and the vulnerability that subjects them to sexual violation.

That charge took us across the country, from North Dakota to Arizona to Florida. We listened as tribal leaders recounted how violence tears at the fabric of their communities. Researchers and professionals told us about how victimization can steal a child's future. And survivors courageously shared their experiences in the hope that by telling their stories, they too might answer the poet's question and lessen the number of suffering children.

And now we have come to Alaska to focus on the problems facing young people living in Alaska Native villages. We have come to Alaska, where the realities of geography and jurisdiction make this a place like no other; where the challenges of reducing the exposure of children to violence is particularly unique, particularly complex, and particularly hard.

The important work which we have pursued in Indian Country throughout the lower 48 to reduce violence against Native women and children, to reduce sex trafficking, to improve the health and safety of Native communities -- the need for that work is particularly acute here, in this beautiful and magnificent state that spans an area larger than Texas, Montana and California combined.

It is a need that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have, over the last five years, worked hard to address.

Since 2010, the Justice Department has made almost 1,000 grants totaling nearly $440 million to improve public safety in Native communities, primarily through the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation, or CTAS. Approximately seven percent of all funding the Justice Department has made to Native communities has come here, to Alaska, to the Alaska Native villages and 229 federally-recognized tribes throughout this state. On a per capita basis, that is on par with funding we provide to tribes in the lower 48.

Last year, for example, we awarded almost $17 million to help hire law enforcement officers, serve sexual assault and domestic violence victims, improve the prosecution of child sexual abuse, expand Alaska Native tribal court capacity, and support Native youth in this state.

We've helped fund a youth culture camp which addresses the needs of drug-endangered children by bringing Native youth together with their families and village elders to share in traditional activities like beading and sewing, headdress construction, and grass basket weaving.

And we’ve supported the Kodiak Area Native Association to provide same-day forensic medical exams and forensic interviews to child victims of neglect and physical and sexual abuse who otherwise would be forced to travel hundreds of miles and spend days away from home to receive these critical services.

And, yet, as significant as these efforts are -- and make no mistake, they are life-changing in their significance -- we're also mindful that's it's not enough.

It's not enough when Alaska Native women comprise less than 20 percent of this state's overall population but represent nearly half of all reported rape victims.

It's not enough when Alaska Natives are two-and-a-half times more likely to die by homicide than Alaskans whose skin is white.

It's not enough when, as recently as 2011, Native children comprised more than half of all maltreatment reports substantiated by Alaska’s child protective services and over 60 percent of all children removed from their homes.

It's not enough when, as Marcia Hurd told me she heard yesterday in an Alaska Native village, a child's most fervent wish is not for toys or candy but for water that is simply clean.

And, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of many dedicated state law enforcement officers, a lack of resources compounds an already untenable situation. State Department of Public Safety officers, who have primary law enforcement responsibility in rural areas, are, on average, able to devote only one to one-and-a-half field officers to patrol every million acres of land.

Few Native communities have their own enforcement personnel, and the Village Public Safety Officers who serve as first responders under Alaska State Trooper oversight are spread thin, inconsistently trained and unarmed. At least 75 communities lack any law enforcement presence at all.

This means many Native crime victims -- especially children -- have little, if any, access to even the most basic services.

Now, in the face of such poverty and deficiency, some may be tempted to throw up their hands and say the problems are too intractable, the challenges too hard, the social and economic geography too difficult to overcome, the political terrain too treacherous.

But we reject that defeatist attitude. We reject it because the situation faced by so many of our Native children is unacceptable. We reject it because of the responsibility we in the federal government share with tribes and state and local officials to protect our most vulnerable citizens from harm. We reject it because the shared destiny of our Native and non-Native children alike -- a future which they will create together -- that demands no less.

We can turn the tide and break the cycle of violence experienced by our Native children. And while no one approach will prove to be a panacea, there are things we can do -- policies we can pursue -- that will help better protect American Indian and Alaska Native children from adversity.

One step Attorney General Holder and I believe we can take is to enhance the ability of Alaska Natives to issue and enforce domestic violence protection orders in the same way tribes in the lower 48 can do now. And that’s why the Department supports Congress’ repeal of Section 910 of last year's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Because as everyone here understands, a child's exposure to violence often starts, tragically, in the place she should feel most safe: in the home. In most tribes throughout the country, VAWA provides them with full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders.

But Alaska Native villages and tribes have been carved out of that authority. Now, I understand there will always be competing arguments about the scope of authority Alaska Native villages and tribes may exercise. And, I know that, in those arguments, this Justice Department will be a voice in support of tribal sovereignty. But whatever one’s view, we cannot let these arguments impede our primary duty to protect our Native children from harm and secure them a future free of violence.

And while the repeal of Section 910 won’t, by itself, change the landscape for domestic violence victims overnight, it is more than just symbolic. Repeal of Section 910 is an important step that can help protect Alaska Native victims of that violence and, significantly, the children who often witness it, and it can send a message that tribal authority and tribal sovereignty matters; that the civil protection orders tribal courts issue ought to be respected and enforced.

Now, as I mentioned a moment ago, taking steps like this will not be a cure-all; they are necessary but not sufficient to create a future where all of our children -- Native and non-Native alike -- can learn, grow and thrive.

Achieving that goal will take all of us in this room -- all of us working together, sharing ideas together, learning from one another's mistakes and building on one another's successes. What we've heard over the last several months around the country, and what we hear today, will form the foundation of an effort that will produce an action blueprint for policymakers, legislators, researchers, educators, public health professionals, tribal leaders and law enforcement.

And I predict the blueprint this Advisory Committee will produce later this year will offer not easy choices or generic platitudes; I predict it will not be a volume destined for the high shelves of some government or university bookcase.

No; I predict it will challenge us to do what is necessary -- to invest what is necessary -- by telling us not only what's possible and practical but what's absolutely required if we're going reclaim and defend childhood for these kids.

And all of it will be based on what we learn in hearings such as this, from folks such as you. So again my thanks to all of you for your commitment and dedication to this effort and I look forward to our continued work together as we build better, brighter future for all of our children.

Thank you.

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated December 16, 2016