Cronkite Header

Cronkite News has moved to a new home at Use this site to search archives from 2011 to May 2015. You can search the new site for current stories.

Native American women face high rate of sexual assaults, low access to support

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the agency behind one of the programs. Safestar is an initiative of the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women and is managed by the Southwest Center for Law and Policy.

Email this story
Print this story

WASHINGTON – Native American women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as any other race, but successfully prosecuting assailants is harder in Indian country – beginning with something as simple as collecting evidence of the crime.

Of the 11 hospitals in Arizona run or funded by the Indian Health Service, only one can test all victims for evidence of sexual assault and three can test adults only with a procedure commonly called a “rape kit,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

If a rape kit is not available at the local hospital, a victim must be taken to another center hours away – if he or she still chooses to go through with it.

Those barriers to collecting evidence can seriously hinder the chances of putting a rapist behind bars, said Diane Humetewa, a former U.S. district attorney for Arizona.

“It’s extraordinarily important to have that physical evidence that may later disappear,” she said. “Physical evidence or documentation of physical injury is critical to prosecuting a violent crime.”

In the GAO report, only Alaska and Montana had more than one clinic with a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFEs) or trained nurse (SANEs) who can test victims of all ages.

Until Arizona’s medical centers have SAFEs or SANEs, they have no choice but to tell sexual assault victims to go to the nearest forensic-trained professional if they want to have evidence to press a case against their attackers.

For many women, that means traveling off the reservation, going somewhere with a different culture – and possibly a different language – for a time-consuming and emotionally sensitive procedure. But until there are enough trained professionals at tribal clinics, referrals are the best option, said Beverly Cotton, the IHS coordinator of sexual and domestic violence prevention.

“Those hospitals are doing the absolute best thing,” Cotton said. “If you had a cardiac patient without the competency (to help them), you wouldn’t keep them in the facility.”

Responding with everyday people

A Justice Department pilot project on the Tohono O’odham reservation is one attempt to see if everyday people can collect evidence that is admissible in court and persuasive enough to provide the basis for a case against sexual aggressors.

The program, called Safestar, trained 14 women in July to collect evidence and maintain the proper chain of custody to keep it admissible in court. The women in the program also learn how to provide first aid and connect victims to professional help.

“We’re not training people how to perform open-heart surgery,” said Hallie Bongar White, executive director of the Southwest Center for Law and Policy in Tucson, which oversees the project. “We’re training people how to collect evidence.”

Safestar volunteers are trained to refer victims to medically certified help first – explaining to them that a SANE procedure is “the gold standard” – before collecting evidence themselves, White said.

Cotton said Safestar is meant as temporary fix until medical forensic experts are more widely available. An initiative of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, it one of 65 projects targeting domestic violence and sexual assault. Eight of those projects focus on forensic training. She called Safestar a temporary, but necessary, plug.

“It’s kind of a stopgap or tourniquet,” she said.

The 14 Safestar volunteers on the Tohono O’odham reservation took 40 hours of training in a week, learning evidence-collection and chain-of-custody rules used by the FBI.

After the training, the women were sent home with rolling cases full of Buccal swabs to collect DNA samples, fresh clothes for victims, a camera and many other items needed for forensic work. They were instructed to do only what victims request, and the process is anonymous unless the victims ask otherwise.

Having volunteer evidence collectors who live in the community also helps provide stability. Like many other federal professionals in Indian country, physicians or registered nurses usually stay in one place for only a few years.

“Recruitment and retention have been a challenge,” Cotton said.

The government is looking to create a web-based course that would take several months to complete but would eliminate an expensive training trip that can strain the tribes’ already-thin medical resources. Currently, certifying medical professionals in forensic collection means taking them off the reservation for a weeklong training session, and many clinics cannot afford to lose someone for that amount of time, Cotton said.

“They say, ‘Listen we’re going to have to take a physician out from our community for 24 hours, and we can’t do that,’” Humetewa said.

Despite the pluses, there has been criticism of Safestar, mainly over the fact that a layman-as-forensic-examiner is not the ideal person for the job, White said. Humetewa, the former district attorney, said a jury and judge would likely question the credibility of an evidence collector without a medical degree.

“If you put it in the context of a jury trial, there are a number of issues that come up,” said Humetewa, a member of the Hopi nation.

But White doesn’t think there are other options. She said the project was “born of frustration,” and even she hopes there’s no need for it in the future.

“I would like to have sexual assault nurse examiners everywhere,” White said. “I don’t want a Safestar program to have to exist.”

The ‘unspoken crisis’

White knows the oft-cited Department of Justice statistic – 34 percent of Native American women “experienced a completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes” compared to 18 percent of white women, 19 percent for African American women and 7 percent for Asian women.

But White doesn’t believe the numbers for American Indian women – she thinks 34 percent is too low.

White said she has been to reservations where the locals have told her they believe all the women will eventually be victims. She believes the crisis of sexual assault on Native land is worse than most people think.

Yet the subject is still taboo there.

“It is the unspoken crisis,” said White, who runs an advocacy group in Tucson. “It is the dirty little secret.”

Even if a forensic exam is done, and enough evidence survives the time it takes to arrange an exam, many victims become reluctant to testify, or change their description of the event because they are ashamed and unable to shake the stigma in their small communities, Humetewa said.

Doctors and nurses might also be reluctant to testify, she said, because the time they spent in court would mean time away from the clinic, where they are likely the only medical staff.

If case is pressed, there’s no guarantee that the accused will stay behind bars long. And if the accused is not a tribal member, tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to try them under existing law. The Justice Department says that the majority of sexual assaults against Native women, 57 percent, are committed by non-Indians.

Stronger laws are needed to keep accused sexual offenders away from victims, said Lorena Halwood, who runs the Ama Doo Alchini Bighan Inc. crisis center in Chinle.

“They’re let out, and nothing is basically done,” she said. “It’s just like a slap on the wrist. ‘You be a good little boy and don’t do this again.’”

Jails in her Navajo Nation district cannot hold offenders for more than 48 hours, and she said it is hard to impose and enforce restraining orders, especially because tribal law does not differentiate domestic assault from other forms of assault.

The lack of law enforcement is the focus of federal legislation, some of which has passed. But more needs to be done, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli told the Senate Indian Affairs committee in November.

“Federal law enforcement resources are too far away and stretched thin, and federal law doesn’t provide the tools and the types of graduated sanctions that are provided in state laws around the country,” he testified.

In 2010, the Tribal Law and Order Act passed. It increased the number of federal prosecutors for tribal lands and expanded tribal courts’ sentencing authority from a maximum of one year to a new limit of three years.

It also ordered a study on the extent and problems of violence against women – including domestic and sexual assault. Many experts say the extent of abuse in Indian country has never been truly quantified.

“Tribal leaders, police officers and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed,” Perrelli testified, “with beating after beating, each more severe than the last.”

Next steps

The Senate is currently considering the Stand Against Violence and Empower (SAVE) Native Women Act, which would create grant programs for advocacy groups, among other provisions. Halwood said such advocacy groups are the best resource for victims in her community.

Resources are scarce in Chinle. Prosecutors have to travel to the district, and victims have to travel out. The nearest women’s shelter is in Kayenta, an hour’s drive away, but it is often filled to the brim. When that happens, victims have to go to Page, off the reservation and 166 miles away.

Halwood’s crisis center, ADABI, is closed at night, except for emergencies. The best she and her volunteers can do is put someone in a hotel for a while, she said in a phone interview – a minute before the center’s power went out.

The most urgent need is for trained victims’ advocates, especially as violence rises, Halwood said. The number of people assisted by ADABI – who have endured mental, emotional and other types of abuse – had almost doubled, from 622 last year to 1,166 by Nov. 10 this year.

“We’re constantly busy, and we just don’t have enough people,” Halwood said.

Still, amid a dire situation, the range of advocacy efforts is instilling optimism in experts and officials who deal with Native sexual assault cases. Humetewa said she has seen grass-roots organizations swelling to fill the gaps where government falls short, and that gives her hope.

“While it may be slow to come,” she said, “it will come.”