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Native American kids need more protection, advisory panel tells Holder in new report

A panel of Indian-country experts will recommend to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday that tribes be allowed to criminally prosecute non-Indians who sexually or physically abuse Native American children on tribal land, saying that juveniles on reservations are living with “dire” levels of violence and poverty.

The recommendation addresses a loophole in a law passed by Congress last year. The measure allowed the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes for the first time to prosecute non-Indians who commit certain crimes of domestic violence against Native Americans in Indian country. But the law, opposed by most Republican lawmakers, does not allow non-Indians to be prosecuted by tribes for abusing Indian children on a reservation.

Closing that loophole is one of 31 wide-ranging recommendations made by the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence in a 120-page report obtained by The Washington Post. The committee, which conducted four public hearings this year — in North Dakota, Arizona, Florida and Alaska — is releasing the report Tuesday morning.

“I felt profound sadness for what so many of these children have gone through,” said former U.S. senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who co-chaired the 13-member committee with Iroquois singer and child advocate Joanne Shenandoah. More than 600 people participated in the hearings, including more than 70 experts and representatives from over 60 tribes and 15 states.

“American Indian and Alaska Native children represent the future and they face unprecedented challenges, including an unacceptable level of exposure to violence, which we know can have lasting and traumatic effects on body and mind,” Holder said in a statement provided to The Post. “We must understand these impacts well so we can pursue policies that bring meaningful change.”

The panel highlights “vastly under-resourced programs” for American Indian and Alaska Native children and recommends significantly increasing funding. The report says these children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and triple the rate of the general population.

“Day in and day out . . . American Indian and Alaska Native children suffer exposure to violence at rates higher than any other race in the United States,” the report says. The result is “increased rates of altered neurological development, poor physical and mental health, poor school performance, substance abuse, and overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system,” the report concluded.

Dorgan said that along with giving tribes more criminal jurisdiction over their children, the U.S. government’s responsibility to Indian nations requires the provision of basic governmental services on reservations. Funding for reservations, however, is in the discretionary portion of the federal budget, he said.

“This should be mandatory funding,” Dorgan said. “If you have a treaty and laws, how do you describe it as discretionary funding?”

The Interior Department, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, provides funding for tribal court systems. But, according to the report, the funding “is far too low” and should be brought into line with spending levels in the rest of the country.

The Justice Department has been an important source of funding for tribal justice programs since the late 1990s. But the money has been consistently decreasing in recent years, especially the one grant program that has offered the most help to children exposed to violence.

Justice Department funding for that grant dropped from $25 million in fiscal 2010 to $5 million in 2014. The panel recommended that all grant-based and competitive Indian-country criminal-justice funding end and be replaced with a permanent funding system.

The panel said the Department of Housing and Urban Development should build facilities for children exposed to violence and places for youth activities.

Children on reservations grow up in “Third World conditions” in housing mostly built by HUD decades ago, Dorgan said. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.

The panel also recommended that the Obama administration establish by May a permanent, fully staffed Native American Affairs Office in the White House with a senior official devoted to the issues faced by American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.


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