In White Earth, breaking the cycle of domestic violence

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by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
May 12, 2010
St. Paul, Minn. — Police and advocates for women on the White Earth Indian Reservation are trying to break the cycle of domestic violence.

A $700,000 federal grant will pay for a domestic violence investigator and expand a victims’ advocacy program. The money also will fund a new women’s shelter on the White Earth reservation this year.

The new programs will help address a crisis of violence. One in three American Indian women will be raped sometime in their life, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

American Indians also are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted compared to all other races.

On the White Earth Indian Reservation, officials say poverty, alcoholism and isolation contribute to an environment in which violence against women is all too common.

Assistant White Earth Human Services Director Ben Bement recalls trying to convince a woman to break the cycle of sexual abuse in her family.

“Her comment was, ‘I lived through it, my kids will live through it.’ ” Bement said. “And that apathy is just part of the thing because there are so many barriers to overcome you almost give up.”

Some of the barriers are beginning to come down because of education efforts, expanded advocacy programs, and more aggressive law enforcement.

Lorette Gjerde, director of the White Earth Down on Violence Everyday program, said that when the program started in 2004, she tracked 106 cases of domestic violence. Last year the program handled 174 cases.

“Domestic violence has actually changed a lot,” Gjerde said “People are coming forward, they’re reporting, they’re following through with orders for protection. They’re calling if there’s a violation of the order. I’ve seen a big improvement and lot’s of people coming forward and reporting.”

But there are still many barriers to reducing violence against women in small communities where everyone knows each other, and women are often isolated, Gjerde said.

The nearest women’s shelters in Detroit Lakes, Bemidji or Thief River Falls are an hour or more away from any reservation communities, too far for a woman without a car to travel.

“Isolation is a big issue because the victims that we work with usually don’t have a vehicle; they don’t have a way to get anywhere,” Gjerde said. “They need to depend on the abuser or his family or their family. It’s a big barrier.”

A new eight-bed shelter to be built this year will be the only shelter on the reservation, and will offer a safe place closer to home.

While more domestic violence cases are being reported, Gjerde believes many sexual assault cases still go unreported.

White Earth Police Chief Randy Goodwin hopes a new sexual assault and domestic violence investigator hired this year will send a message to the community.

In the past, White Earth police would have turned domestic violence and sexual assault cases over to one of three local county sheriff’s departments in Becker, Clearwater or Mahnomen counties. But now, those cases will be handled by tribal police as part of a law enforcement expansion at White Earth. Goodwin said tribal investigators will present the cases to prosecutors in the county where the allege crime occurs.

“By the time they finish their investigation, it is a fairly strong case that is being presented to the county attorney’s office for prosecution,” Goodwin said. “We don’t have any numbers back on it yet, but I would venture to say we will have a very high conviction rate on those cases.”

In the first three months of this year, the new investigator opened 16 sexual assault cases, Goodwin said. That’s one more than the DOVE program tracked for the entire year last year.

He said more aggressive law enforcement will help protect victims, but education is the key to changing community values.

“The cycle of sexual assault, sexual abuse, domestic violence is a horrific cycle. But it’s one of those cycles that have to be broken,” Goodwin said. “When children see this going on on a daily basis they think it’s just a way of life. And they have to learn that it’s not.”

Assistant White Earth Human Services Director Ben Bement agrees that changing community attitudes is critical.

Bement said violence against women was not accepted in traditional Indian culture. He said a return to those community standards will require the men of White Earth to step forward.

“We’re still searching to get men actively involved,” Bement said. “To get them to stand up and say hey this is not okay. It’s not traditional, it doesn’t show respect, and to stand up and say enough is enough.”