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From broken homes to a broken system

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  • From broken homes to a broken system

    The Washington Post
    Sari Horwitz

    PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — She sits alone in a cinder-block cell, an Oglala Lakota teenager with a long braid and tattoos. For five months she has been locked up on this remote prairie reservation for drinking and disorderly conduct.

    When she behaves, she can watch television. Mostly, though, she passes the time with two books — a Bible and “The Hunger Games” — and her journal, in which she records the monotony of her long days. The journal, with an eagle on the cover, also holds the names of nearly a dozen friends and relatives who have died — some from drugs, violence or suicide.

    “It’s so boring in here,” the 17-year-old says before coming to a realization that would have startled her just a short while ago: “I miss school more than anything.”

    For the teenager, whose name is not used because she is a juvenile, and nine other Native Americans at a facility for minors here, there is no schooling, no vocational opportunity and no counseling. There is simply detention.

    Their situation is emblematic of a juvenile justice system that is fundamentally broken when it comes to Native American youths. Around the country, juveniles on reservations are left to languish in cash-strapped facilities that cannot afford to provide the kind of rehabilitative services afforded to most young offenders in the United States. Because some reservations have no juvenile detention centers,offenders often are shipped to facilities far from their homes, compounding the isolation of incarceration.

    A jurisdictional legal maze in Indian country further complicates matters. Indian reservations are sovereign nations. So when juveniles commit minor crimes, their cases are usually handled by the tribes. But when they commit a serious felony, their cases are generally handled by federal prosecutors, and they can be sent to either federal prison or a federal facility.

    In the federal system, there is no juvenile division, and no court judges, rehabilitation facilities or probation system for juveniles. From 1999 through 2008, as many as 60 percent of juveniles in federal custody were American Indians, according to a commission that last year recommended that tribes be given full jurisdiction over Indian children and be released from “dysfunctional federal and state controls.”

    Advocates say Native American youths have essentially been forgotten.

    “There is no systemic program to educate kids or provide services for them in detention centers,” said Troy Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission and a former U.S. attorney for Colorado. “They don’t have computer instruction. They don’t have classrooms. They have nothing, and their services are lacking because Congress hasn’t appropriated the funding. They just sit in a cell all day.”

    Pine Ridge’s attorney general, Tatewin Means, the daughter of the late American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, works out of a run-down building with a broken toilet and no heat or air conditioning.

    Means said there is no funding for behavioral health services for children who have been sexually or physically abused. And when, as teenagers, some get caught up in the juvenile justice system, the tribe has few resources to help them.

    “For the last two years, we have applied for federal grants for public safety and child protection and were absolutely shut out,” she said.

    ‘No place to be’

    The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is larger than the state of Delaware, covering more than 2.7 million acres of starkly beautiful, windswept Plains *grasses and Badlands buttes. But the tribal communities here are racked by 87 percent unemployment and crippling poverty. Located within Pine Ridge, Shannon County has one of the highest numbers of people living below the poverty line in the nation. Families live in rotting and overcrowded public housing.

    In an environment plagued by sexual assault, domestic violence and substance abuse, it is a struggle to protect children, law enforcement officials say. Many young people turn to drugs or otherwise run afoul of the law.

    Heather Thompson, a former assistant U.S. attorney in South Dakota who prosecuted many cases from Pine Ridge, put it bluntly: “There is no place for our kids to get help.”

    The one Boys and Girls Club is often closed because of a lack of funding. The nearest population center, Rapid City, with a population of about 70,000, is more than 100 miles away.

    Although Pine Ridge is technically a “dry” reservation, just over the line in Nebraska is the tiny town of Whiteclay, which is lined with stores that sell alcohol to Pine Ridge residents; day and night, they can be found leaning against buildings or lying on the ground intoxicated.

    Tony Ghost-Red Feather, 18, said he grew up surrounded by alcoholism and violence. He said that he was bullied at school and that some of his friends and relatives ended up in the juvenile detention center. He considered suicide on two occasions. The only things stopping him were his younger siblings, whom he was mostly responsible for raising.

    “I had a knife in my hand,” he said, recalling one episode. “I was sitting in the dark outside and crying. I was going to either slit my wrists or go at my throat or my stomach.”

    A 17-year-old on the reservation said she, like Ghost-Red Feather, grew up in the shadow of alcoholics and domestic violence. She started cutting herself when she was 15.

    Sometimes she uses a cigarette lighter to burn her arms.

    “I do it to feel the pain,” she said. “Burning takes everything off my mind.”

    On four different occasions, she was sent to the juvenile detention center for offenses including disorderly conduct and running away, a criminal violation. It was, she said, “no place to be.”

    “You’re mainly just looking at cement walls,” she said. “There were no teachers or counselors. They woke us up to take showers and clean up. Then, we were just sitting there.”

    Barriers to improvement

    Detention facilities explicitly for Native American youths are operated by an amalgam of entities.

    The Bureau of Indian Affairs runs three of the 23 juvenile detention centers in Indian country. Fourteen of the facilities are run by tribes but are overseen and funded in part by the BIA. The remaining six are funded and run by tribes.

    Several of the facilities operated by the BIA, an agency within the Interior Department, have been beset by problems. A facility in Lower Brule, S.D., has been closed for a year because of structural problems. On Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, a more than $7 million center constructed with Justice Department and tribal funds has been empty for more than four years because it was not built to code. The new building will continue to be run by the BIA when it opens.

    Dozens of facilities that had been built are vacant or seriously underutilized because operating funds haven’t been provided, according to a panel of Indian-country experts that presented a report last week to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

    Juveniles arrested on those reservations have to be sent to other reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles away.

    Much of the criticism of the juvenile justice system for Native Americans is centered on the removal of young offenders from their communities, a practice that critics say makes it even more difficult to rehabilitate them. The BIA acknowledges the situation presents challenges for families but said there are not always alternatives.

    “If we had the ability to have a fully staffed juvenile detention facility at every reservation, that would be absolutely the best way to do it,” said Darren Cruzan, the director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services. “But we know that is unrealistic based on the ability to build safe juvenile detention facilities and staff them appropriately.”

    A member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Cruzan said the BIA is taking steps to try to improve services for juveniles in Indian country. But he stressed the difficulty of developing education programs, saying that “a lot of the juveniles that we’re getting are kids who aren’t in school or have dropped out of school.”

    Tribal members who testified last year before the Indian Law and Order Commission, a congressionally mandated panel, said that detention facilities on reservations lacked adequate education programs because there was no funding. The BIA, however, disputes that criticism.

    “I hear the same concerns, that it’s not in there and it’s not happening,” Cruzan said when asked about criticism that there are no education programs in some facilities. “But when I hear those things I get with our chief of corrections. The conversation is, ‘Hey, just assure me that we have education in these facilities.’ And the answer is always, ‘Yes, we do.’ ”

    The Kiyuksa O’Tipi Reintegration Center, Pine Ridge’s juvenile detention center, is funded and overseen by the BIA but operated by the tribe. A BIA document indicates that there is an education program. Inside, there is a classroom with desks and computers.

    However, there are no teachers, no counselors and no academic programs.

    “Funding ran out two years ago,” one official at the detention center said.

    Rehabilitating youth

    About an hour and a half drive across the northern Great Plains is a juvenile detention facility for Native Americans that looks and feels altogether different.

    Unlike in Pine Ridge and other reservations, there is no barbed wire surrounding the center. Inside, students learn to carve in a woodshop, work out in a gymnasium and participate in “smudging,” a ceremony of burning sage and cedar to cleanse a person and keep away negative spirits and energy.

    The Wanbli Wiconi Tipi Youth Wellness and Renewal Center, on the Rosebud Reservation, houses about 250 teenagers each year and is run by Miskoo Petite, who grew up in the community.

    “We are trying to integrate traditional Lakota cultural information, and rehabilitate our youth by bridging the gaps they might have with their identities and who they are,” he said.

    Unlike other juvenile centers, where a majority of the building is used for detention, 70 percent of the space is used for programs.

    “I have had juveniles tell me directly that they would rather be in the juvenile detention center in Rosebud than at home,” said former Rosebud attorney general Mato Standing High.

    Like Pine Ridge, Rosebud — home to an estimated 25,000 people living on about 900,000 acres of tribal land — is overwhelmed by dire poverty. Over a two-year period, 47 teenagers committed suicide on the reservation, Petite said. At least two children a day are victims of a crime or exposed to abuse and neglect, school violence or domestic violence, according to Standing High.

    For all its problems, however, the juvenile detention center is striving to rehabilitate young offenders. Outside sits a traditional sweat lodge, a dome-shaped hut, for them to experience the ceremony of purification and prayer.

    The juveniles attend classes and are taken on field trips to places like the Wounded Knee memorial on Pine Ridge, where they learn more about their history and the day in December 1890 when the U.S. Cavalry massacred an estimated 300 men, women and children of the Great Sioux Nation. (Many on the reservation prefer to refer to themselves as Lakota rather than Sioux, a term meaning “little snake” that they say was given to them by their enemies.)

    “It’s jail, but they give you a chance to do things here — go to the gym, play ball, learn Lakota [the language] and go to school every day,” said one teenager who said he had been housed in three other juvenile detention centers.

    Law enforcement officials credit Petite with running a facility that is considered among the most progressive in Indian country. At the same time, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota is working closely with the tribes to keep Rosebud juveniles out of the federal system whenever possible and allow them to be sentenced in tribal court.

    “This is a really poor, very remote reservation,” said Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission. “But when the tribes have some control over their systems, they don’t warehouse kids. They make sure there’s education, including for the ones who misbehave.”

    Petite, however, is still dependent on grants from the BIA and the Justice Department to operate his programs. And as with many health, education and law enforcement programs throughout Indian country, tribes have to compete against one another for funding. Every couple of years they have to reapply to keep programs running — or they end. Petite will soon lose his clinical psychologist because the federal grant funding her has ended.

    The panel of Indian-country experts that met with Holder last week said that tribal juvenile justice programs are “grossly underfunded.” The panel said it is “unacceptable” for federal agencies to provide grant money limited to three years and recommended that grant-based, competitive criminal justice funding for Indian country be replaced with a permanent budget.

    In Petite’s view, one the best programs at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi centers on an organic garden planted by staff and kids, a beehive and a greenhouse. The program is designed to remind tribal youth of their history of living off the land and to instill in them an appreciation of nurturing life.

    “We donate the vegetables — *tomatoes, chili peppers, cucumbers — to our elders or use them in the kitchen,” Petite said.

    During a recent tour of the facility, however, Petite seemed reluctant to open the door to the greenhouse. When he did, there was a stench of decay. The greenhouse had been overtaken by weeds.

    “Our federal grant for the program recently ended,” he explained. “We just don’t have the additional staff to keep this garden going.”

    Julie Tate contributed to this report.

  • #2
    The Fed is guilty of not investing in enough LOCAL permanent staff at many agencies involved with reservations. It take years of working with a reservation to make the contacts and lines of communication. Too many times, Feds are people that will move away for a promotion, since they had no local ties in first place.

    The reporters that wrote this need to visit the various Fed offices that are FAILING in their duties, hold their noses down to the situation.


    • #3
      It takes the family to counter what is happening. Once the family is broken, it becomes difficult to keep the kids on track. In Crow Creek South Dakota, my family has issues but luckily the tragedies have been sparse.
      Wanjica Infinity No One


      • #4
        Here in Canada, our feds are notorious in funding programs and then cancelling funding.
        I keep coming to the same conconclusion, we need to become self sufficient and then they(feds) will lose their power over us.
        Stuff like turn that greenhouse into a profitable business with proceeds going back to the center(plus still supply the elders). Or teach the youth engine rebuilding, body work etc. Turning "average cars" into muscle cars, which would be sold at auction and proceeds returning back to the center. Yes there would be substantial start up fee but the profit margins even better. Even breed and train horses and sell them also.Just need to find a nic or a few.
        Here's where a bigger problem lies. Once we become self sufficient, I'm pretty certain that both our governments will do their best to "shut things down" since it is of my humble opinion, that's the last thing they want us to achieve.
        When I have spoken in public, speaking on behalf of sexual abuse survivors, I can reach people's Hearts. Here's the key(IMHO) We need to share our pain with the average citizen, to open their Hearts and once open, we have to keep them open, then others will join our cause. Our youths are master with social media, allow them to lead that campaign(with guidance of course).
        In the standoffs/protests I've been in I realized the only ones who knew why we were doing this, was us, even those cops didn't know and the average citizen didn't have a clue.
        We need to educate their ignorance, then they will join our fight using 2 of the most powerful gifts the Creator has given us, Our Voices and Our Hearts...


        • #5
          Originally posted by alumphfres View Post
          “Our federal grant for the program recently ended,” he explained. “We just don’t have the additional staff to keep this garden going.”
          You want a garden, you work the garden. You don't work it, then you don't want it. I can work a half acre plot by myself while also working full time and taking care of my family obligations - which includes feeding them pesticide free, heritage seed based organic produce (which may even lower their risk for cancer in the future; Monsanto's Roundup Linked to Cancer - Again). You don't need money for staff, you just need a few people who want a garden.
          Mii iw keyaa ezhi-ditibiseyaan


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