Senate Committee Holds Hearing On High Violence Levels In American Indian, Alaska Native Communities

The trauma American Indian and Alaska Native children experience due to the high levels of violence in their communities was the subject of a hearing today in the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Both Alaska senators pressed for solutions, in law and federal dollars.

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Verne  Boerner, president of the Alaska Native Health Board, asked senators for just two things. One was an increase in funding for behavioral health. The other was to end Alaska’s exclusion from the Violence Against Women Act so that Alaska tribes can issue restraining orders to combat domestic violence.  Boerner spoke after others had already recited some of the terrible statistics, including that 75 percent of Alaska Natives have endured adverse events in their childhoods, such as abuse or violence.

“I offer to you a face to go with those numbers,” she told the panel. “I was sexually abused from the time I was 9 until 14. I lived in fear and silence those years, but when the man who abused me told me that my sister, who turned 9, was ready, I went to the police.”

Boerner spoke of the lasting damage to her family, including the death of a sister still in her 20s.

“A most painful fact is that my story is not unique. It is far too common. In Alaska over 50 percent of Alaska Native women report having experienced some form of abuse,” she said.

The hearing came a day after a task force report highlighted the damage violence inflicts on the children of  Native Americans. Sen. Mark Begich emphasized his efforts to repeal Alaska’s exclusion from the Violence Against Women Act.

It just seems fair that we would want to fix it for all first people of the United States, not just the Lower 48.

A bill he sponsored last year, called Safe Families and Villages, was held up by Republicans. Sen. Lisa Murkowski says her colleagues are waiting for a Justice Department review. But Begich , whose days as a senator are running out, has now presented the Senate with a stripped-down version of the bill that he hopes will attract less dissent.

At the hearing, Murkowski said Alaska tribes don’t have secure access to federal money for courts or law enforcement. She said she’d try to rectify that through her position on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. Murkowski also pressed Robert Listenbee, a Justice Department administrator, to consider more reliable formula funding for Alaska tribal justice programs.

“Can you at least tell us that you’re going to look at it? We’ve got to make some headway on this,” she told him.

His 40-second answer wasn’t what Murkowski wanted to hear.

“Quite honestly, folks don’t want to hear that we’re engaged in more process. They want to know that we’ve got resources on the ground,” she told him. “They know that tribal courts are funded in the Lower 48. They know that they’re not funded in Alaska. That doesn’t make sense to them. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Murkowski then turned to Yvette Roubideaux, acting director of the Indian Health Service. The senator says she’s done politely requesting funds to sustain village clinics. The clinics, she says, provide behavioral health services and health care that victims of violence need.

“You have got to help us with these village-built clinics! You have got to help us!” the senator pleaded. She said the Obama administration hasn’t been supporting clinics in his budgets.

The hearing did offer a spot of hope. Rick Van Den Pol, of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, says childhood trauma is treatable and that as few as 10 group sessions have proven effective.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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