Friday, August 20, 2021

‘Little victims everywhere’: Child sexual abuse ravages Native communities

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2021 at 6:45 AM

The convicted child rapist emerged from the tree line without warning, walked quickly past the elders who feared him and entered the Navajo home, where his 15-year-old daughter was feeding her pet rabbits.

A short while later, the 6-foot-3-inch man known for being violent emerged with the girl, promising to return in half an hour. But that was a lie. Ozzy Watchman Sr. was kidnapping his daughter for the second time in six months.

click to enlarge Alice Watchman and brother Leonard Watchman at her farm near Sawmill, Arizona, on July 8, 2021. Alice’s nephew, convicted child rapist and registered sex offender Ozzy Watchman Sr., took his 15-year-old daughter from the farm and was missing for nearly two weeks. - BRENDON DERR/HOWARD CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
Brendon Derr/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
Alice Watchman and brother Leonard Watchman at her farm near Sawmill, Arizona, on July 8, 2021. Alice’s nephew, convicted child rapist and registered sex offender Ozzy Watchman Sr., took his 15-year-old daughter from the farm and was missing for nearly two weeks.

Family members pleaded with tribal authorities to issue an Amber Alert, but it never came. Nearly two weeks passed before Watchman and his daughter were found on June 30 — not by Navajo police or the FBI, which has the investigative lead in such cases, but by a maintenance worker who encountered the two as they scavenged for food.

Child sexual abuse is among the worst scourges on Indigenous communities in North America, yet little hard data exists on the extent of the problem. Some researchers estimate it could be as high as one in every two children.

Dr. Renée Ornelas, a veteran child abuse pediatric specialist working in the Navajo Nation — the largest and most populous tribe in the United States — said practically every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse.

“They’re just little victims everywhere,” she said.

The federal government has been responsible for investigating and prosecuting “major crimes” in Indian Country since 1885. A century later, child sexual abuse was added to the crimes list. But not until the last decade has the Justice Department been required to publicly disclose what happens to those investigations — disclosures that suggest many cases of child sexual abuse are falling through the cracks.

A Howard Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of Justice Department data shows that the FBI has “closed administratively” more than 1,900 criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in Indian Country since 2011. Such cases are not referred to federal prosecutors because, the FBI says, they fail to meet evidentiary or statutory requirements. But child sex abuse investigations accounted for about 30% of all major crimes on reservations closed by the FBI each year — more than any other type of crime, including murders and assaults, the analysis showed.

Justice Department case management data, analyzed by the Howard Center, reveals that U.S. attorneys pursued charges less than half the time in child sexual abuse cases from Indian Country — about one-third less often than they filed charges in other crimes. Only a small percentage of child sexual abuse defendants from Indian Country went to trial. Most cases, such as Watchman’s previous child sex abuse, ended in plea bargains, which typically involve lesser sentences.

“There are a lot more child sexual abuse cases than are being reported,” said child psychologist Dolores Subia BigFoot, who directs the Native American Programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “There’s a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being investigated, and there’s a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being prosecuted.”

click to enlarge This chart shows the total number of child sexual abuse cases administratively closed by the FBI each year, as a proportion of all closed cases, from 2011 to 2019, according to Justice Department data. Weak or insufficient evidence was the most common reason cited for closing cases. - ANNE MICKEY/HOWARD CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
Anne Mickey/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
This chart shows the total number of child sexual abuse cases administratively closed by the FBI each year, as a proportion of all closed cases, from 2011 to 2019, according to Justice Department data. Weak or insufficient evidence was the most common reason cited for closing cases.

Combating child sexual abuse is difficult anywhere. The crime is often committed by a relative or family friend, increasing the pressure on the victim to stay silent. Physical evidence is rare, and conviction can hinge on the testimony of someone barely old enough to describe what happened.

But in Indian Country the problem is complicated by what one former U.S. attorney calls “a jurisdictional thicket” of tribal and federal authority spread across wide swaths of territory, making communication and coordination difficult.

Tribal courts are limited by U.S. law in the kinds of cases they may try. The federal government must step in when the crime is considered major, such as child sexual abuse, or when it occurs on a reservation and the suspect is non-Native. On reservations in a handful of states, including Alaska and California, that authority has largely been handed over to the state.

This means the first authorities on the scene must quickly determine the type and location of the crime and the tribal membership of both the victim and suspect. If one of those things is in question, investigations can grind to a halt. Crime scenes can go cold, cases get closed without consequence, and cycles of violence continue.

“I suspect that’s why there’s so many adults that have these histories of child sexual abuse,” said Ornelas, who runs a family advocacy center at Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation Reservation. “It’s been a problem for a long time. And there’s a lot of offenders out there who get to re-offend and move on to other children in the family.”

U.S. attorneys and their teams of prosecutors have wide latitude in deciding which cases to take and which to decline. Justice Department guidelines require that they choose those most likely “to obtain and sustain a conviction.” Federal prosecutors focus mostly on major fraud and counterterrorism and don’t typically prosecute violent crimes, the kind of cases that are handled by local and state prosecutors when the crime occurs outside of reservations.

“The bottom line is that they just focus on the cases that are, you know, relatively easier to do, said Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney in Colorado and current president of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. “I think that’s human nature, right, and that’s how you stay funded.” He also noted Indian Country doesn’t have much of a political constituency, compared with the rest of the U.S. population.

Insufficient evidence is the reason most often cited for closing or declining to prosecute child sexual abuse cases from Indian Country. But that can be a subjective call and there’s little oversight of the cases that get closed or declined, the Howard Center found.

One former FBI agent, who spoke on condition he not be named, said “there’s a lot of cases that have fallen between the cracks” in Indian Country. “I don’t think a lot of people know,” he said, referring to the large number of declined cases as a “dark corner in Indian Country.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department said decisions not to prosecute were “not a useful measure of outcomes in most cases.”

“Child sexual abuse is abhorrent, illegal, and causes long-lasting damage to young lives,” Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of public affairs, said in a statement. “The Department of Justice takes its work to address violence in Native American communities extremely seriously, especially the abuse and victimization of children. We will continue to prioritize these efforts, including by working with state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners to maximize and coordinate our responses to such matters.”

These often-unspoken crimes — some elders believe talking about them invites trouble into the home — are part of an ongoing legacy of sexual trauma that began with colonization and continued in the boarding school era in which thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families in a forced cultural assimilation program. Chronic alcoholism, poverty and a lack of housing — all of which are widespread on many reservations — are a vestige of and a contributor to the cycle of child sexual abuse, experts say.

Tribal court jurisdiction expanded slightly in 2013 when the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized to include non-Native domestic abusers. The law did not address sexual crimes against children. A 2021 draft of the reauthorization bill gives tribal authorities the right to prosecute non-Native offenders if they sexually abuse a child on tribal territory. But it’s unclear if that language will survive long-held concerns in Congress about further expanding tribal courts’ power to try and sentence non-Native offenders.

“We sometimes forget that the United States has this affirmative trust obligation to provide public safety or health care or other things to tribal governments and Indigenous peoples,” said Trent Shores, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma and a member of the Choctaw Nation. “That’s something that our Founding Fathers agreed to and set out in treaties. And so, you know for me, there is sometimes that frustration when Indian Country is forgotten.”

CHAPTER 2 -The federal trust: ‘no justice … just unfairness’

Every day that Christine Benally looks out of the window of her home, she’s reminded of how the federal government failed to protect her child. Some 200 yards away sits the house of the man she says sexually assaulted her son.

In November 2005, Benally’s then-13-year-old son told her that he had been sexually abused by a relative over several years. What happened next, based on records Benally provided to the Howard Center, was a by-the-book approach to seeking help.

Benally filed a crime report with the Navajo Nation Police Department in Shiprock, New Mexico, and also contacted social services. When she and her son met with police, they provided the names of those involved, including the suspect, the time frame of the incidents and location of the alleged crimes. According to Navajo police records, the suspect “confessed to the allegations.”

In January 2006, Benally was interviewed by a Navajo police criminal investigator and, records show, both she and her son were later questioned at their home by FBI agents from nearby Farmington, New Mexico. Records from Navajo family court also say that one of the FBI agents said the suspect had confessed.

But in November 2007, two years after first contacting police, Benally received a fax from an FBI victim specialist in Farmington, saying that an assistant U.S. attorney had declined the case. No reason was given.

Benally is well-known in her community, in part because she refused to drop the issue and move on quietly with her life. After the suspect moved back to the family homestead in 2012, she began lobbying for the U.S. Attorney’s office to reopen her son’s case. She even appealed to then-President Barack Obama.

In 2015 and 2017, she received three more letters from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Mexico, restating that the case was closed for insufficient evidence, but offering no details.

Benally says she still doesn’t understand why the case was declined.

Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a Navajo government official who accompanied Benally to a meeting with federal prosecutors in 2015, said she didn’t know either. “I do not have the clear answers on why there was a federal declination. When we spoke with the U.S. attorney’s office with Christine, they had just told her in my presence that they had already told her … the reasons why her case was declined.”

The Justice Department’s handling of major crimes in Indian Country has long been a concern.

In December 2010, the Government Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — issued its findings on how often federal prosecutors were declining to prosecute cases from Indian Country, where violent crimes were running about 2.5 times the U.S. average.

From 2005 to 2009, investigators found, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute about half of all violent crimes and 67 percent of “sexual abuse crimes and related matters.” The report did not distinguish between adult and child sex abuse crimes. Reasons for declinations varied, but weak or insufficient evidence was most frequently cited.

Earlier that year, Congress had passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, aimed at addressing these high rates of violent crime. It expanded data collection from the FBI and U.S. attorneys about cases referred and declined for prosecution and required that information be made public annually. Those reports show consistently high levels of FBI case closures and Justice Department declinations for child sexual abuse crimes.

For tribal courts that met certain judicial standards, the act increased sentencing authority from one to three years and fines from $5,000 to $15,000. And it formalized the role of tribal liaisons — assistant U.S. attorneys whose job was to build relationships with tribal authorities and develop multidisciplinary teams of federal and tribal prosecutors, investigators, victim witness coordinators and others to investigate crimes such as the sexual abuse of children.

By 2017, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General had found widespread problems with the law’s implementation.

“We found that no Department-level entity oversees Indian country law enforcement activities or ensures the Department’s compliance” with the act’s mandates, the inspector general’s report said.

There was no “coordinated approach to overseeing the assistance” provided, the report said. The department had not prioritized assistance “consistent with its public statements or annual reports to Congress.” It also needed to do more to ensure all required training was being provided. Crime data in Indian Country “remains unreliable and incomplete,” the report found. And despite Indian Country being a “priority area,” funding for federal prosecutions there had decreased by 28% from $27.6 million in 2010 to $19.8 million in 2016.

The inspector general also noted that the tribal liaisons — those assistant U.S. attorneys who were supposed to improve relations between tribal and federal authorities — were nearly ineffective because they continued to carry full caseloads, leaving little time for tribal liaising.

The lack of oversight and coordination meant that U.S. attorney’s offices around the country differed in how they prioritized and implemented Indian Country obligations. More than half of the operational plans of U.S. attorney’s offices with Indian Country jurisdiction lacked basic protocols for things like notifying tribes about case declinations, the report said, with some tribes never receiving notice.

That’s apparently what happened in Benally’s case.

When she asked tribal prosecutors in 2014 to consider taking her son’s case to Navajo court, they twice wrote to the FBI’s special agent in charge in New Mexico asking for information on why the case was declined.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. In April 2016, the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation wrote Benally acknowledging concerns “about the sexual assault perpetrated against your son that you reported several years ago,” but noting that the statute of limitations had expired for prosecution in Navajo court. There is no statute of limitations in federal court for child sexual abuse.

FBI agents are often the federal government’s first representative on the scene of a reported crime in Indian Country, even though they may live and work hundreds of miles away. In Colorado, for example, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe are between a 320- and 400-mile drive from the Denver offices of the FBI and U.S. attorney. Given that the FBI has no 911-like intake process, agents are always one degree removed from any Indian Country investigation.

The Justice Department’s inspector general also noted that FBI agents received inadequate training, despite the unique cultural, jurisdictional and geographic challenges of working in Indian Country. High-turnover rates among agents working in Indian Country, considered a hardship post under agency guidelines, make it difficult to build relationships with tribal authorities, which ultimately affects the quality of investigations.

Timothy Purdon, the former U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said there was sometimes a “lack of quality investigations” so that when an abuse case reached the federal prosecutor’s desk there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. He said he often encouraged his FBI partners to allocate more resources for investigating child sexual abuse in Indian Country: “You’re constantly fighting with the Bureau to get them to prioritize these cases.”

The former FBI agent in Indian Country, who asked not to be named so that he could speak freely, said the decision to decline a child sex abuse case had a lot to do with a prosecutor’s “comfort level” and that U.S. attorneys were more accustomed to cases that are “cut and dried.”

He also said there was virtually no oversight, beyond front-line supervisors, of FBI agents’ decisions to close cases, and senior management “never ever look at (closed) cases due to insufficient evidence in Indian Country.”

Wyn Hornbuckle, the Justice Department spokesman, highlighted seven cases over the last six years of “significant prosecution” of child sex abuse in Indian Country, leading to convictions, ranging from life to less than two years.

But even when such cases seemingly have everything needed for conviction, they can still fall apart.

In September 2013, Leo Thompson, a member of the Navajo Nation, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his girlfriend’s granddaughter when she was 12. But before his sentencing hearing, the victim sent two letters to the court recanting her accusation. From there the case collapsed — charges were dropped, and Thompson went free.

According to an official transcript of the dismissal hearing, the prosecutor told the federal court in New Mexico he believed that family pressure played a role in the girl’s decision to recant. “Sometimes, sadly, the courtroom is a place where the truth comes to die, and that’s what happened in this case,” prosecutor Jack E. Burkhead said.

Unsuccessful with prosecutors, Christine Benally sought other legal measures to help her son. He filed for a protective order against his alleged abuser in Navajo family court in 2014. It was initially denied, but in 2017 the Navajo Supreme Court granted temporary protection. The high court ruled that Benally’s son “did prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it is more likely than not” that the abuse had occurred, even though the alleged abuser now denied it.

News of that decision came in a letter from the court addressed to her son, who was by then away at college. “What do they want with him now?” Benally recalled thinking.

The letter sat on her kitchen counter for a week before she mustered the courage to tell her son about it over the phone.

“He was crying, and he says, ‘So they believe me?’” she said.

For Benally, the acknowledgement 12 years after their first report to police, was too little, too late.

“There’s no justice,” Benally said. “There’s just a lot of unfairness.”

CHAPTER 3 - Tribal law and disorder

The Navajo Nation is one of 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States and, by most accounts, its justice system is one of the most sophisticated in Indian Country.

But a recent report by the Navajo Nation Police Department said current staffing levels were “dangerously low.” The report came out shortly before Ozzy Watchman and his daughter went missing in June.

The first time Watchman took his daughter, in December 2020, the police never responded to the family’s call for help, relatives said. Alice Watchman, the girl’s legal guardian, said she waited for police, but they never arrived. Navajo police said they did send out officers and make a report. Alice Watchman said she resorted to hunting for the missing girl using tracks in the dirt and snow. Ultimately, the girl returned home but had to be sent to a behavioral health clinic, she said.

When she called police after the June incident, Watchman said it took them three hours to arrive. Though the Navajo Nation stretches across four states, the Watchman farm is about a 15-minute drive from the police department in Window Rock, the seat of government.

The Navajo Nation doesn’t have a 911 emergency hotline the same way major cities do. To get tribal law enforcement to respond to an emergency requires knowing at least one of the multiple 10-digit numbers that connect to the local district’s police department.

“Even if you know that number, you’re not sure if they’re going to come,” said Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a council delegate for seven chapters of the Navajo Nation, a position akin to a U.S. senator.

Crotty, herself a sexual assault survivor, chairs the Navajo council’s Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee, which was established in 2016 after the abduction, rape and murder of Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old girl from Crotty’s district. Mike’s father filed a lawsuit against the Navajo Nation blaming his daughter’s death on delays in issuing an Amber Alert.

Navajo officials never issued an Amber Alert in June after Watchman took his daughter from her home, even though she is a minor and he is a convicted sex offender and not the girl’s legal guardian.

Phillip Francisco, chief of the Navajo Nation Police Department, said the incident didn’t merit an Amber Alert because “there was no reason to believe she was in imminent danger or serious bodily harm.” He said it was an “ongoing issue” and that the daughter “voluntarily left with the father.” Nonetheless, the department put a “missing/endangered” notice on its Facebook page a day after the two went missing.

Francisco said he was never told anything about allegations that Watchman had sexually abused his daughter, but he was aware of an earlier assault case involving the girl’s mother, Alberta Billie.

Watchman was convicted in 2006 of sexually assaulting a minor and in 2013 of assault on a minor for stabbing his son. In February, court records show, he brutally beat the mother of his three children. After he was found with his daughter in late June, federal authorities indicted Watchman for that assault on Billie. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix would not say if prosecutors planned also to charge him with child sexual assault involving his daughter.

Both the girl’s guardian and mother said they were told an Amber Alert could not be issued because the girl, at 15, was too old. Francisco said the girl met the age requirement for Amber Alerts of 17 or younger but not the threat assessment. The girl’s mother also said she appealed to the FBI for an Amber Alert, but was directed back to Navajo police. The FBI does have the power to ask states in which a kidnapping occurs to issue an Amber Alert on behalf of a tribe, the former agent said.

“In my opinion, they met the criteria for an Amber Alert,” said Crotty. But, she added, what happened in the Watchman case is a symptom of bigger, more systemic problems.

“My job is to figure out, are they (crime victims) being silenced because of lack of resources. Like, is law enforcement saying, well, we don’t have enough officers to go out there, so we’re not going to take this report?” she said. “And that’s what we were finding out, like dispatchers would kind of prioritize where officers would, what type of cases that they would go to.”

Crotty, who also sits on the government’s Budget and Finance Committee, says that in the Navajo Nation, resources for tribal police are nowhere near what’s needed to meet even basic law enforcement needs.

An independent assessment of the Navajo police department echoed those concerns. It not only found that current staffing levels were “dangerously low” but that officers were overworked due to understaffing. As of October 2020, the report said, there were 158 patrol officers to cover 27,000 square miles and 173,000 residents. To meet the current public safety needs of the Navajo Nation, the report said there should be 775 personnel, including patrol officers and command and support staff. Since that number could overextend the nation’s budget, the recommended personnel number now stands at 500. Other problems noted in the report include no internet or cellphone service in parts of the Navajo Nation, which has few real addresses.

“If you ask community members, do they feel safe in their communities? A large amount will say no because there’s still a lot of these challenges,” Crotty said, adding that her constituents feel “invisible.”

“I don’t understand why I don’t have running water. I don’t understand why it takes three hours for a police officer to come. I don’t understand, like, why a lot of these things happen,” Crotty said, summarizing their concerns. “And so I think congressional leadership doesn’t have any type of accountability to what’s happening here.”

Tribes are very limited in their taxing abilities; for example, they can’t levy property taxes. Additional funding for tribal law enforcement is supposed to come from the federal government. But federal funding for law and order in Indian Country is allocated by two departments with differing expertise — the Justice Department, which handles law enforcement and judicial functions, and the Interior Department, which has historically handled matters in Indian Country.

The Justice Department cannot provide base funding to tribal courts or tribal law enforcement because that authority belongs to Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Justice can offer grants, but that varies by administration. In addition, the grants are competitive, often short term and complicated for tribes to apply for and administer.

One of the recommendations of a 2013 Tribal Law and Order Act commission was to restructure and simplify Indian Country public safety funding, giving the Justice Department the authority to provide permanent base funding and eliminating the grant-based system.

“You have a federal Major Crimes Act, a federal law, so you need to properly fund that,” Crotty said. “You know, your system created this, and so we can go only to a certain point.”

Ozzy Watchman Sr. mentioned wanting to spend Father’s Day fishing at Wheatfields Lake, which is on the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-New Mexico border, said his uncle, Leonard Watchman. When he disappeared with his daughter on the Friday before Father’s Day, Leonard Watchman told his sister to call the police and later told authorities about the Wheatfields remark. But no one seemed to listen, he said.

In the end, that’s exactly where the two were found after being spotted by the maintenance worker, about 30 miles away from Alice Watchman’s farm.

The girl spent three days, including her 16th birthday, in the hospital. After the December incident, she’d told a relative that her father had sex with her several times, the family member said. Authorities were notified of this, but nothing happened as a result.

“The sex offender was taking the girl and seems like nobody cares,” Alice Watchman said.

CHAPTER 4 - Pathways to justice

Despite the problems of tribal authorities and limitations on their courts, many former U.S. attorneys believe the tribal justice system would be the most effective in dealing with crimes, such as child sexual abuse.

“I think that tribal investigators in these cases, in many instances are as skilled, if not more skilled, in investigating them than federal agents,” said Trent Shores, the former U.S. attorney in Oklahoma, who has also advised on Native American and Alaska Native issues at the federal level.

In addition to Shores, former U.S. attorneys from Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota — whose territories include some of the largest reservations — told the Howard Center that the long-term solution is to give tribes the authority and resources to prosecute crimes that occur on their own lands in the same way that states do.

To enable this would require what’s known as an “Oliphant fix” — overturning the precedent set in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which established that tribes do not have jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders.

The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act began that shift, however slight. In addition to mandating that closure and declination rates by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices be made public, it also offered a framework for training tribal law enforcement and increasing the sentencing power of tribal courts, provided they adhere to a set of judicial procedures aimed at ensuring a fair trial.

But even the Navajo Nation’s justice system has yet to implement all the necessary judicial updates.

Those in favor of the “Oliphant fix” say that steps need to be taken to increase tribal justice capacity now, and that starts with more police and judicial funding and implementing regulatory changes that ensure the constitutional rights of all defendants.

“Over time, we need to empower tribes locally,” said Timothy Purdon, the former U.S. attorney for the district of North Dakota, “in a matter of self-determination.”

The 2021 attempt to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which the House of Representatives passed on March 17, allows tribal jurisdiction over non-Native defendants in cases of child sexual abuse. It’s not clear yet how that bill will fare in the Senate. But an effort to include children in the law during the Act’s 2013 reauthorization negotiation failed to get the necessary votes, said Eid, the former U.S. attorney in Colorado.

Resistance to expansions of tribal court sovereignty, such as in the Violence Against Women Act, arise out of concerns that non-Indians will be treated unfairly by tribal court systems.

“Racism and prejudice towards tribes in our states is alive and well,” said Brendan Johnson, the former U.S. attorney for South Dakota. “The idea that you could have a, you know, Native American jury or Native American judge sitting in judgment of you, some people just, you know, they can’t accept that.”

In the void between the federal government’s prosecution of major crimes in Indian Country and Native Americans’ limited judicial authority, tribes are taking a variety of approaches to healing and justice.

Child psychologists like Dolores Subia BigFoot, an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma with an affiliation with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana in which her children are enrolled, say that basic sexual education would go a long way toward combating the problem — fundamentals like consent aren’t being taught to Native children. “If you feel like you don’t own your own body then how can we help really make a dent in understanding how to stop child sexual abuse?” she asked.

BigFoot also said traditional healing ceremonies can help and recalled one for a woman who was first sexually abused as a child that focused on her life and accomplishments. “I think there’s opportunities for healing in different ways,” BigFoot said, “to allow mercy and grace to overcome the part that justice doesn’t.”

Barbara Bettelyoun, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota with doctorates in child development and child clinical psychology, agrees. She runs Buffalo Star People, a nonprofit that uses “healing circles” to help adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “We need to understand that when children are sexually abused, it creates a lifelong wound,” she said.

Amber Kanazbah Crotty, one of only three women on the Navajo Nation’s 24-member legislative body, is working to revitalize the family advocacy centers across Navajo Nation, which help children who report sexual abuse. These facilities provide forensic interviewing and physical evidence collection to help with prosecution. They also offer victim services that will give children a chance to tell their story to foster self-healing.

She is also working with Christine Benally and other advocates to expand the Navajo Nation’s three-year statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases so more cases that get federally declined can be handled in tribal court.

Crotty is aware of the sensitivity surrounding the Justice Department’s declination of Indian Country cases. She likens the “gentle pressure” used in negotiations with her federal partners to how she guides a horse to do what she needs: “just put enough pressure.”

“At every level we have to be accountable (for) what’s happening to our children,” Crotty said. “I cannot depend on an investigator or a court system to provide or to make that person whole.”

Researchers Grace Oldham and Rachel Gold contributed to this story. It was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. For more see Contact us at or on Twitter @HowardCenterASU.

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