On Wednesday, November 19, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on “Protecting Our Children’s Mental Health: Preventing and Addressing Childhood Trauma in Indian Country.” The hearing took place one day after the Department of Justice’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Exposed to Violence released a scheduled report. The 258 page report, Ending Violence So Children Can Thrive is the result of a special task force set up by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013. In turn this task force is an outgrowth of a 2011 Taskforce that was a key part of the A.G.’s Defending Childhood Initiative.

The Senators questions and testimony submitted seemed to be in line with the emphasis of the new DOJ/Task Force report with the authors stating, that,

“…despite the tremendous efforts of tribal governments and community members, many of them hindered by insufficient funding, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children suffer exposure to violence at rates higher than any other race in the United States. The immediate and long term effects of this exposure to violence includes increased rates of altered neurological development, poor physical and mental health, poor school performance, substance abuse, and overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system. This chronic exposure to violence often leads to toxic stress reactions and severe trauma; which is compounded by historical trauma. Sadly, AI/AN children experience posttraumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and triple the rate of the general population.2 With the convergence of exceptionally high crime rates, jurisdictional limitations, vastly under-resourced programs, and poverty, service providers and policy makers should assume that all AI/AN children have been exposed to violence.”

The truncated hearing (unexpectedly shorten due to Senate floor votes) included testimony from Administrator Robert Listenbee, in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Acting Director Yvette Roubideaux, Indian Health Service, Principle Deputy Administrator Kana Enomoto, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Director and Principle Investigator, University of Montana National Native Children’s Trauma Center, and President and CEO Verne’ Boerner, Alaska Native Health Board.

Through their questions and comments senators grappled with a desire for expanded services in Indian country and some frustration with current funding and past actions and staffing by the federal government. There seemed to be concern on the part of senators from both parties but such concerns have not been born out when it comes time to adopting appropriations for various funding sources for the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and several other small line items in the HHS and DOJ budgets.

An issue that surfaced both in the testimony and in the report recommendations is the desire to strip out a section from the recently passed (2013) Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), section 910, referred to as the Alaska exception. It is a provision in VAWA that allows special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to tribal courts over non- Indian offenders who commit domestic violence, dating violence, or violate a protection order.   The report recommendations stated, “It is troubling that tribes have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit heinous crimes of sexual and physical abuse of AI/AN children in Indian country. Congress has restored criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit domestic violence, commit dating violence, and violate protection orders. Congress should now similarly restore the inherent authority of AI/AN tribes to assert full criminal jurisdiction over all persons who commit crimes against AI/AN children in Indian country including both child sexual abuse and child physical abuse.” That provision had been included by Alaskan congressional leaders but has now caused problems. Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) said at the hearing that he was working to speed up a bill through the Senate in the next days that would repeal the provision. Senator Begich had just day’s earlier conceded defeat in his bid for reelection.