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Native American women face high rate of sexual assaults

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Native American women face high rate of sexual assaults

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  • Juanita Homer is one of the Tohono O’odham women trained to provide Safestar assistance and evidence collection to victims of sexual assaults on the nation’s lands.
    Courtesy the Southwest Center for Law and PolicyJuanita Homer is one of the Tohono O’odham women trained to provide Safestar assistance and evidence collection to victims of sexual assaults on the nation’s lands.
  • The Gila River Indian Community is responding to high rates of domestic violence in the nation by building a shelter in Sacaton for women who have been abused.
    Gardenia Coleman/Cronkite News ServiceThe Gila River Indian Community is responding to high rates of domestic violence in the nation by building a shelter in Sacaton for women who have been abused.
  • Safestar project coordinator Arlene O’Brien said the fact that all the women getting training in the program had been touched by sexual assault themselves 'opened my eyes' to the scope of the problem.
    Courtesy the Southwest Center for Law and PolicySafestar project coordinator Arlene O’Brien said the fact that all the women getting training in the program had been touched by sexual assault themselves 'opened my eyes' to the scope of the problem.

WASHINGTON — Native American women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as any other race, but successfully prosecuting assailants is harder in Indian country — beginning with something as simple as collecting evidence of the crime.

Of the 11 hospitals in Arizona run or funded by the Indian Health Service, only one can test all victims for evidence of sexual assault and three can test adults only with a procedure commonly called a “rape kit,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

If a rape kit is not available at the local hospital, a victim must be taken to another center hours away – if he or she still chooses to go through with it.

Those barriers to collecting evidence can seriously hinder the chances of putting a rapist behind bars, said Diane Humetewa, a former U.S. district attorney for Arizona.

“It’s extraordinarily important to have that physical evidence that may later disappear,” she said. “Physical evidence or documentation of physical injury is critical to prosecuting a violent crime.”

In the GAO report, only Alaska and Montana had more than one clinic with a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFEs) or trained nurse (SANEs) who can test victims of all ages.

Until Arizona’s medical centers have SAFEs or SANEs, they have no choice but to tell sexual assault victims to go to the nearest forensic-trained professional if they want to have evidence to press a case against their attackers.

For many women, that means traveling off the reservation, going somewhere with a different culture – and possibly a different language – for a time-consuming and emotionally sensitive procedure. But until there are enough trained professionals at tribal clinics, referrals are the best option, said Beverly Cotton, the IHS coordinator of sexual and domestic violence prevention.

“Those hospitals are doing the absolute best thing,” Cotton said. “If you had a cardiac patient without the competency (to help them), you wouldn’t keep them in the facility.”

Responding with everyday people

A pilot project on the Tohono O’odham reservation is IHS’s first attempt to see if everyday people can collect evidence that is admissible in court and persuasive enough to provide the basis for a case against sexual aggressors.

The program, called Safestar, trained 14 women in July to collect evidence and maintain the proper chain of custody to keep it admissible in court. The women in the program also learn how to provide first aid and connect victims to professional help.

“We’re not training people how to perform open-heart surgery,” said Hallie Bongar White, executive director of the Southwest Center for Law and Policy in Tucson, which oversees the project. “We’re training people how to collect evidence.”

Safestar volunteers are trained to refer victims to medically certified help first – explaining to them that a SANE procedure is “the gold standard” – before collecting evidence themselves, White said.

Cotton said Safestar is meant as temporary fix until medical forensic experts are more widely available. It is one of the agency’s 65 projects targeting domestic violence and sexual assault. Eight of those projects focus on forensic training. She called Safestar a temporary, but necessary, plug.

“It’s kind of a stopgap or tourniquet,” she said.

The 14 Safestar volunteers on the Tohono O’odham reservation took 40 hours of training in a week, learning evidence-collection and chain-of-custody rules used by the FBI.

After the training, the women were sent home with rolling cases full of Buccal swabs to collect DNA samples, fresh clothes for victims, a camera and many other items needed for forensic work. They were instructed to do only what victims request, and the process is anonymous unless the victims ask otherwise.

Having volunteer evidence collectors who live in the community also helps provide stability. Like many other federal professionals in Indian country, physicians or registered nurses usually stay in one place for only a few years.

“Recruitment and retention have been a challenge,” Cotton said.

IHS is looking to create a web-based course that would take several months to complete but would eliminate an expensive training trip that can strain the tribes’ already-thin medical resources. Currently, certifying medical professionals in forensic collection means taking them off the reservation for a weeklong training session, and many clinics cannot afford to lose someone for that amount of time, Cotton said.

“They say, ‘Listen we’re going to have to take a physician out from our community for 24 hours, and we can’t do that,’” Humetewa said.

Despite the pluses, there has been criticism of Safestar, mainly over the fact that a layman-as-forensic-examiner is not the ideal person for the job, White said. Humetewa, the former district attorney, said a jury and judge would likely question the credibility of an evidence collector without a medical degree.

“If you put it in the context of a jury trial, there are a number of issues that come up,” said Humetewa, a member of the Hopi nation.

But White doesn’t think there are other options. She said the project was “born of frustration,” and even she hopes there’s no need for it in the future.

“I would like to have sexual assault nurse examiners everywhere,” White said. “I don’t want a Safestar program to have to exist.”

The ‘unspoken crisis’

White knows the oft-cited Department of Justice statistic – 34 percent of Native American women “experienced a completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes” compared to 18 percent of white women, 19 percent for African American women and 7 percent for Asian women.

But White doesn’t believe the numbers for American Indian women – she thinks 34 percent is too low.

White said she has been to reservations where the locals have told her they believe all the women will eventually be victims. She believes the crisis of sexual assault on Native land is worse than most people think.

Yet the subject is still taboo there.

“It is the unspoken crisis,” said White, who runs an advocacy group in Tucson. “It is the dirty little secret.”

Even if a forensic exam is done, and enough evidence survives the time it takes to arrange an exam, many victims become reluctant to testify, or change their description of the event because they are ashamed and unable to shake the stigma in their small communities, Humetewa said.

Doctors and nurses might also be reluctant to testify, she said, because the time they spent in court would mean time away from the clinic, where they are likely the only medical staff.

If case is pressed, there’s no guarantee that the accused will stay behind bars long. And if the accused is not a tribal member, tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to try them under existing law. The Justice Department says that the majority of sexual assaults against Native women, 57 percent, are committed by non-Indians.

Stronger laws are needed to keep accused sexual offenders away from victims, said Lorena Halwood, who runs the Ama Doo Alchini Bighan Inc. crisis center in Chinle.

“They’re let out, and nothing is basically done,” she said. “It’s just like a slap on the wrist. ‘You be a good little boy and don’t do this again.’”

Jails in her Navajo Nation district cannot hold offenders for more than 48 hours, and she said it is hard to impose and enforce restraining orders, especially because tribal law does not differentiate domestic assault from other forms of assault.

The lack of law enforcement is the focus of federal legislation, some of which has passed. But more needs to be done, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli told the Senate Indian Affairs committee in November.

“Federal law enforcement resources are too far away and stretched thin, and federal law doesn’t provide the tools and the types of graduated sanctions that are provided in state laws around the country,” he testified.

In 2010, the Tribal Law and Order Act passed. It increased the number of federal prosecutors for tribal lands and expanded tribal courts’ sentencing authority from a maximum of one year to a new limit of three years.

It also ordered a study on the extent and problems of violence against women – including domestic and sexual assault. Many experts say the extent of abuse in Indian country has never been truly quantified.

“Tribal leaders, police officers and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed,” Perrelli testified, “with beating after beating, each more severe than the last.”

Next steps

The Senate is currently considering the Stand Against Violence and Empower (SAVE) Native Women Act, which would create grant programs for advocacy groups, among other provisions. Halwood said such advocacy groups are the best resource for victims in her community.

Resources are scarce in Chinle. Prosecutors have to travel to the district, and victims have to travel out. The nearest women’s shelter is in Kayenta, an hour’s drive away, but it is often filled to the brim. When that happens, victims have to go to Page, off the reservation and 166 miles away.

Halwood’s crisis center, ADABI, is closed at night, except for emergencies. The best she and her volunteers can do is put someone in a hotel for a while, she said in a phone interview – a minute before the center’s power went out.

The most urgent need is for trained victims’ advocates, especially as violence rises, Halwood said. The number of people assisted by ADABI – who have endured mental, emotional and other types of abuse – had almost doubled, from 622 last year to 1,166 by Nov. 10 this year.

“We’re constantly busy, and we just don’t have enough people,” Halwood said.

Still, amid a dire situation, the range of advocacy efforts is instilling optimism in experts and officials who deal with Native sexual assault cases. Humetewa said she has seen grass-roots organizations swelling to fill the gaps where government falls short, and that gives her hope.

“While it may be slow to come,” she said, “it will come.”

Women helping women

Arlene O’Brien couldn’t believe it.

It was the first day of training on the Tohono O’odham reservation for Safestar, an Indian Health Service program that trains everyday women to help sexual assault victims. The 14 women who were there to learn how to collect evidence and provide first aid began the program by introducing themselves.

Safestar is an initiative of the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.

Every one of the 14 said she had been affected by rape. Every one said that either she, a family member or a close friend had been sexually assaulted.

“It was just overwhelming to me,” O’Brien said. “It opened my eyes to what really was happening.”

O’Brien, the Safestar project coordinator with the Southwest Center for Law and Policy, had assumed that some of the participants might have been assaulted or might have personally known someone who was. She had lived on the reservation all her life, and she knew that sexual assaults were prevalent and underreported.

But she never expected it would have touched all of them.

Safestar, a pilot project by the Indian Health Service on the southern Arizona reservation, trained women this summer to collect evidence and act as first responders to sexual assault victims. The volunteers are armed with cases of Buccal swabs to collect DNA samples, changes of clothes for the victim and over-the-counter medicines, including Plan B contraception.

In 40 hours of training, the volunteers – some of whom used vacation time to attend – learned evidence collection procedures and chain-of-custody rules used by the FBI. They also learned first aid and how to connect victims with mental health services, shelters, law enforcement and professional victims’ advocates.

The 14 women chosen for the first Tohono O’odham Safestar training course were selected for their reputations among the tribal members. O’Brien said she was looking for “someone who someone would go to for help,” first by picking a few women she knew, then finding the rest by word of mouth.

Genoveva Antone was just such a woman. She came to the training after years of helping others on the reservation. And when it was her turn to speak, Antone, just like the other Safestar volunteers, said her life had been shaken by sexual assault.

As she recounted the experience of telling her Safestar colleagues this summer about the assault, Antone’s eyes began to water during an interview five months later in Arlington, Va. When asked if she feared reprisal from offenders or their families, she said the only thing she had to overcome was an inner fear.

When asked what that inner fear was, she said “OK.” She exhaled slowly as she drew her hand downward from above her head to her chest.

“I was a victim,” she said.

Antone is one of the women who did not talk about her assault. She has only recently spoken about it openly. But she says now she has to confront the issue, and revisit her own trauma, if she is going to aid other women who have been raped and brutalized.

“I had to change in order to help others,” Antone said. “Otherwise, it was going to tear me up…. That took me forever. It’s not something that goes away.”

O’Brien said the silence is not uncommon.

“People don’t talk about it; they don’t,” O’Brien said. “At least these women are coming forward – not publicly, but at least they are coming to someone.”

When Antone tends to a victim, she said she does not say much. There are no standard words of comfort or any prepared instructions.

“You just listen,” she said.

Antone said she tries to provide traditional tribal aid to victims, to help them heal in a way that might be described best to non-O’odham as “spiritually,” but she could not find a way to describe it in English.

But even with treatment and support, the wounds of sexual assault never completely heal – for her or others, Antone said. Being there for others does her well, but the experience will always linger.

“It helps,” she said, “but it doesn’t heal.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the agency behind one of the programs. Safestar is an initiative of the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women and is managed by the Southwest Center for Law and Policy.

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