U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West, the department’s third-highest official, is scheduled to be in Bismarck Monday for the first public hearing of a 12-member task force that will examine the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.
West said he plans to take copious notes.
“One of the reasons why it’s important for me to go to Indian country periodically is to remind myself that people living there do not give up. And if they’re not giving up, we’re not giving up,” he said.
West pointed out recent steps such as the extension of the Violence Against Women Act and the granting of special criminal jurisdiction that allows perpetrators to be tried regardless of race. He also said many victims are now reporting crimes rather than staying silent.
“People are feeling safer and having more confidence in criminal justice system to come forward and report them,” West said. “That being said, there is a lot of work we have to do.”
The task force is the latest effort by the Justice Department to address violence on reservations, particularly against women and children. It is co-chaired by former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a longtime advocate for Native American issues. His last piece of legislation to pass Congress was the Tribal Law and Order Act.
“This is a big issue. We’ve seen some evidence of it in North Dakota. The Spirit Lake Nation has had some very significant problems,” Dorgan said. “There have been others as well.”
Federal prosecutors in North Dakota recently tried two cases involving the death of three children on Spirit Lake, which has been criticized for its ineffective child protection system. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which took over control of the tribe’s child social services more than a year ago, recently assigned seven agents to the reservation.
“We take these allegations very, very seriously. U.S. Attorney (Timothy) Purdon is personally engaged in those cases,” West said. “When it comes to ensuring there’s justice in Indian country, that’s a collective responsibility.”
The two-tiered task force is anchored by a federal working group that includes U.S. attorneys and officials from federal Interior and Justice departments, and an advisory committee of experts on American Indian studies, child health and trauma and child welfare and law. The committee will make policy recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder.
West is the second top-tier DOJ official to come to the Dakotas in the last year. Deputy Attorney General James Cole visited the Standing Rock Reservation — which straddles North and South Dakota — in the spring of 2012.
West said he has made half a dozen tours of tribal lands and all have been productive.
“What I have learned in the course of those trips is that (there) are many things that we can be doing in collaboration with tribes around the country to improve public safety in Indian Country and to improve the lives of kids,” West said. “Because at the end of the day, what we are talking about here is the next generation of Indian and Native Alaskan peoples. We fail to invest in our youth at our peril.”
Dorgan said he recently visited with a 12-year-old girl living in a shelter on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Her mother was dead and she didn’t know her father, Dorgan said. She was sexually abused in two foster homes.
“She was in a safe place for the first time and then the funding was cut by sequestration,” Dorgan said. “Those are the things that give me passion to keep working on this.”