Sitting in the conference room of a middle school on the Navajo Reservation, a distraught mother was recently telling school officials and teachers why her daughter had been struggling in class.
A federal warrant had been issued for the girl's father, she explained, charging him with the sexual abuse of the couple's son and daughter—and the girl was likely to be called to testify if the case ever came to trial.
“We are going through a very hard time,” the mother said.
This family's anguish is not unusual among native American communities, where the widespread sexual abuse of native children is raising concern among tribal leaders and law enforcement authorities.
The federal government will “not tolerate a world where nearly half of all women and girls have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner,” Attorney General Eric Holder told representatives of the nation’s 566 recognized tribes at a White House meeting in November.
Spreading crime and violence on native reservations has led to the establishment of a task force to examine how to mitigate and prosecute these offenses in what is already a world of tangled jurisdictions involving the federal government, local, state, and tribal law enforcement.
The 12-member task force held its first hearing last month in Bismarck, ND—the first of several scheduled around the country.
But whether the task force will be able to adequately gauge the full extent of reservation crime, particularly child abuse, is an open question.
According to unofficial estimates of law enforcement sources, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of childhood sexual assault/abuse cases occur on America’s Indian reservations. But the seriousness of the issue is complicated by the fact that there are no statistical indicators to accurately identify incidence rates, locations, or suspect demographics.
These tragedies are further exacerbated by complex family relationships, cultural stigmas, and the limited resources on reservations to address them.
“Ninety percent of my caseload was child sex abuse cases,” says Jim Brown, a retired FBI agent who spent a decade working on the massive Navajo Reservation.
Brown said his caseload reflects the majority of crimes the FBI investigates on the reservation.
The concern is shared by one of his successors, FBI Special Agent John Fortunato, who arrived in Gallup, N.M., with a romantic view of working “Indian Country.”
Gallup is affectionately referred to as “The Indian Capital of the World,” because of its close proximity to the massive Navajo Reservation as well as the Zuni and Hopi Reservations.
Defined by a high desert landscape of majestic red rock formations and its place as a market center for exquisite Indian jewelry, pottery and weaving, Gallup has long been a popular destination for visitors from all over the world fascinated by Native culture.
But behind the tourist dazzle is a grim reality of alcoholism, poverty, isolation and violent crime.
“(With) the type of work that we're doing we almost invariably just see the bad side,” says Fortunato.
Nevertheless, authorities admit that the conflicting jurisdictions on native reservations seriously complicate efforts to curb such crimes. It's hardly a new complaint.
In 2006, James Burrus Jr., then Acting Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, that the FBI routinely receives reports of Indian child abuse from various local law enforcement agencies in Indian Country, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Law Enforcement Services (BIA-OLES).
The problem of child sex abuse is often obscured by the high rate of sexual assaults against women. The Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped at some point in her life.
The pervasiveness of rape on the Navajo Nation, with a population of 169,000 people spread over an area the size of the state of West Virginia, one of the most remote regions of the country, is underlined by some comparative statistics.
The 2012 FBI Uniform Crime Report recorded 357 rapes reported to law enforcement on the reservation. That was higher than densely populated urban areas such as Oakland CA (246 rapes), and Newark, NJ (55).
Moreover, most law enforcement specialists believe that sexual assault cases against Native American women and children are under-reported.
Often assaults occur to women off-reservation and are not counted as reservation crimes. And many suffer in silence because of their lack of confidence in tribal criminal justice.
Contributing in large part to this silence is the frustration bred by low arrest and prosecution efforts, fueling despair and frustration among women, and a sense of empowerment and impunity among offenders.
According to the Department of Justice, only 10 percent of sex assaults on reservations are reported, and arrests are made in just 13 percent of those cases. Federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office.
A Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse to justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts, according to the Navajo Nation's Washington office.
Boarding School Tragedies
Some analysts trace the multi-generational pervasiveness of child sex abuse on reservations to the boarding school era that began in the latter third of the 19th century, when hundreds of thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes and forced to live in the “dominant culture.”
According to the Boarding School Healing Project, a coalition of organizations seeking to document and seek justice for abuses that occurred in boarding schools, sexual abuse was the norm in these residential centers, which were run by the government and missionary groups. So were cover-ups and absence of prosecution.
It has been decades since Native American were forced to attend boarding schools, but those who attend voluntarily have faced similar risks from predators.
In 1987, John Boone, a teacher at a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) day school in Hopi, AZ, teacher was found by the FBI to have sexually abused more than 142 boys.
Another teacher, J.D. Todd, was convicted of molesting seven boys at a BIA school on the Navajo Reservation between 1986-1987. Teacher Terry Hester admitted on his job application that he has been arrested for child sexual abuse but was still hired by the Kaibito Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation.
Hester was later convicted of sexual abuse against Navajo students.
Educators and law enforcement agree there is a plethora of obstacles to effective policing and prosecution of child sex abuse cases on reservation
“Included among those are remote territories requiring substantial travel for investigation, long travel distances for access to technical expertise, reluctant witnesses due to close family structures in most tribal communities, and cultural sensitivities in tribal relations,” Burrus told the 2006 hearing.
Another obstacle: the FBI only investigates sexual assault cases involving victims under 12 years old. All other cases are investigated by tribal, state or county officials, depending on the jurisdiction.
Socioeconomic conditions are a contributing factor to keeping many of these crimes hidden. The majority of reservations are significantly below the poverty level, and women are reluctant to report spouses who are the main source of family income.
Other factors are alcohol—which was involved in over 50 per cent of the cases investigated by retired agent Jim Brown—and the likelihood that the predator was himself molested as a child.
The case of the middle school student on the Navajo reservation stands out because it has gone through the courts. But as traumatic as it may be to the young victim and her family, it also offers a chance to rebuild shattered lives.
In an FBI video posted online, Mac McCaskill, an agent at the Gallup Office, said that many of his Bureau colleagues elsewhere difficult to understand why anyone would want to take such a beat.
But, he responds, “How can you not?”
Joseph J. Kolb teaches in the Criminal Justice Department at Western New Mexico University and is a regular contributor to The Crime Report, FoxNews.com, and The Journal of Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security. He lives in Gallup, NM.