Written by Justice Anne K. McKeig
Let me tell you a story. Before I became a judge, I was a child welfare attorney for sixteen years. As an Assistant Hennepin County attorney, I handled hundreds of child protection matters falling under the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”), a statute which protects Native youth from being removed from their families and reservations. Like many child welfare attorneys in my community, I worked with hundreds of teenagers and young adults. In my case, many of the children I worked with were Native youth.
As a judge, I remember presiding over a heart-breaking case in my civil protection order calendar. The victim was a 19-year-old Native American woman. She had come to court requesting her protection order be dismissed. This is not unusual, but in the midst of the hearing, I realized I recognized the young woman. After the hearing was concluded, I asked the young lady if she had been involved in the child protection system. She said that she had, and that my work as a prosecutor had resulted in both her, and her younger brother being removed from their home, and their biological family. She had been physically and sexually abused by her father. Her mother, a chronic alcoholic, suffered years of horrific domestic abuse from her father and was unable to care for them.
The young women told me that she and her brother were adopted. When she turned eighteen she returned home to the reservation. Unfortunately, as often happens with native youth who return to the reservation after aging out of foster care, her homecoming was not what she had hoped. Her mother had died; her sister had lost rights to three children due to chemical dependency and domestic violence. Her brother was in prison for armed robbery. The young lady eventually returned to the Twin Cities area outside the reservation, and ended up in a violent relationship where she physically assaulted and emotionally tortured.
This young woman’s story, and her request for dismissal of a protection order are all too common among native youth and young adults. The abuse, in her mind, “wasn’t that bad,” and her boyfriend was sorry. This minimization is heavily influenced by exposure to domestic violence. Native American populations have significantly high rates of both domestic violence and sexual assault. When a child sees her grandparents, parents, siblings and other extended family members suffer domestic violence, the violence becomes normalized. It becomes acceptable behavior difficult to escape. As I saw, the cycle of domestic violence continues…
The statistics of domestic violence involving teen are staggering. One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. For Native American teens, the rate is even higher. In one study by the Center for Disease Control, the rate of teen dating violence rate among high school students in Alaska’s Native communities is 13.3%, nearly 4% higher than the national average of 9.8%. Further studies suggest that American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women report having been raped during her lifetime.
In the child protection system, America Indian children are more likely than other children to be identified as victims of abuse. Indian children experience child abuse and neglect at a rate of 12.4 per 1000 children. This means that Indian families are nearly twice as likely to have allegations of abuse be investigated; twice as likely to have allegations of abuse substantiated; and four times likely to have their children be placed in out of home care.
Identification of domestic abuse by teens can be more challenging because of minimization. Many Indian children (and young adults) believe that “abuse” only means that they were hit. Teens and young adults may not understand that abuse includes insults, isolation, humiliation, coercive control and threats of suicide upon breakup. Being hit at home may result in native teens believing that being hit by a partner is normal in a relationship. A teen may not understand the concept of “sexual abuse” assuming that pressure for sexual activity is also normal.
A significant challenge in addressing teen dating violence among Native youth is the lack of accurate and comprehensive data. In part, the dearth of data is due to the lack of resources available to Native women and teens. There are NO federal or Native agencies that currently collect data on instances of domestic violence against Native women, let alone teens. Native victims frequently do not report domestic violence because they don’t believe help is available. There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes, but very few shelters exist that are specifically directed to assist Native victims. There is a lack of culturally appropriate resources to address teen dating violence in Native communities, and inadequate funding to train law enforcement on appropriate responses to domestic violence on reservations.
The need to address dating violence among Native teens is critical. Forty percent of suicides by Native Americans are committed by those between the ages of 15 and 24. While the cause of suicide is complex, untreated trauma is a known factor. Addressing the problem is also not easy. The occurrence of violence among Native teens is complicated by many factors – lack of culturally appropriate resources, historical trauma, high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, and the normalization of violence within the culture, to name a few. The “system” is viewed by the Native community as untrustworthy and in many cases, has contributed to the historical trauma endured by Native American families. Courts must commit to building trust with the Native community; building relationships to engage in meaningful dialogue; and creating a welcoming and accessible presence for Native victims to obtain help. Without that commitment there will be no change.
 Justice McKeig is the associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
 Davis, Antoinette, MPH. 2008. Interpersonal and Physical Dating Violence among Teens. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency Focus.
 CDC. “Youth Online High School YRBS.”
 Tjaden, P & Thoennes, N. (2000). Department of Justice
 Pew Charitable Trusts and National Indian Child Welfare Association
 U.S. Health and Human Services, 2013
 Hill, 2008
 Futures Without Violence Fact Sheet – Facts on Violence Against American Indian/Alaskan Native Women.
 Burbar, R., & Thurman, P.J. (2004) Violence against Native women. Social Justice, 31(4), 70-86.
 Huffington Post, 10/2/15; Native American Youth Suicide Rates are at Crisis Levels.