Senate Testimony: Domestic Assault, Abuse of Native American Women Epidemic

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WASHINGTON — Nearly three out of five Native American women have been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners in what now “has reached epidemic rates,” a federal official told a Senate committee last month.

“It is not simply violence that we see in some communities, but murder rates of Native [American] women that are 10 times the national average,” said Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli.

That violence takes a “tremendous physical and psychological toll” on individuals, society and Indian Country, Rose Weahkee, PhD, director of the IHS Division of Behavioral Health told the committee.

Weahkee and Perrelli were among a panel of witnesses who testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at a recent hearing about the challenges in preventing and caring for American Indian and Alaska Native women who have suffered domestic and sexual abuse. The hearing was held on the heels of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. 

Agencies Implements TLOA

In July last year, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), designed to help the federal government better address public safety challenges in Indian Country. Specific health provisions in the TLOA are being used by IHS to help increase the rate of domestic violence and sexual assault convictions.

This includes a national sexual assault policy, which establishes a uniform standard of care for sexual assault victims seeking clinical services. The new sexual assault policy requires IHS hospitals to provide free forensic exams and full reimbursement when it is done at non-IHS hospitals. The policy also includes evidence collection guidance for IHS, which aligns with criminal justice system response and subpoena regulations, she explained.

The new law authorized the Comptroller General to conduct a study on the ability of IHS facilities and tribal programs to “collect, maintain, and secure evidence of sexual assaults and domestic violence incidents and to develop recommendations for improving those capabilities.”

“The various provisions of the TLOA offer important policy support for health, wellness and public safety in Indian communities,” said Weahkee.

Issue of Non-Indian Abusers

Perrelli, however, said challenges still exist in helping women who are victims of violence, because tribal courts still cannot prosecute a non-Indian perpetrator who commits crimes, even if he lives on the reservation, he said. More than 50% of all Indian wives have non-Indian husbands.

“Tribal police officers who respond to a domestic violence call, only to discover that the accused is non-Indian and therefore outside the tribe’s criminal jurisdiction, often mistakenly believe they cannot even make an arrest,” he said. “Not surprisingly, abusers who are not arrested are more likely to repeat and escalate, their attacks.”

Advocacy groups expressed the need for more to be done to help women who are victims of violence. Carmen O’Leary, director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, said that, in small communities, local services are not always in place to help victims of violence. A woman may be taken far away by ambulance to access the nearest emergency room, then have to find her own way back home, she said.

Sarah Deer, a member of Amnesty International USA’s Native American and Alaska Native Advisory Council, said in her written statement that federal agencies, like the IHS, are challenged in helping women who are victims of crime because of “long-term underfunding and chronic lack of resources and staff.”

“The ability of any law enforcement agency or health-care facility to respond to violent crime is, in large part, dependent on the funding they receive annually,” she said. “The per capita health expenditure for American Indian and Alaska Native population continues to be less than half that for other groups in the United States.”

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