By Brendon Derr, Rylee Kirk, Anne Mickey, Allison Vaughn, McKenna Leavens and Leilani Fitzpatrick / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
The convicted child rapist emerged from the tree line without warning, quickly walked past fearful elders, and entered the Navajo house, where his 15-year-old daughter was feeding her pet rabbits.
Soon after, the 6-foot-3 man known to be abusive emerged with the girl, promising to return in half an hour. But it was a lie. Ozzy Watchman Sr. was abducting his daughter for the second time in six months.
Family members begged the tribal authorities to issue an Amber alert, but it never came. Almost two weeks passed before Watchman and his daughter were found on June 30 – not by Navajo Police or the FBI, which is investigating such cases, but by a maintenance worker who investigates them. encountered while searching for food.
Child sexual abuse is one of the worst scourges for Indigenous communities in North America, but there is little reliable data on the extent of the problem. Some researchers estimate that it could affect one in two children.
Dr RenÃ©e Ornelas, a seasoned pediatric child abuse specialist working in the Navajo Nation – the largest and most populous tribe in the United States – said virtually every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse.
âThey are just little victims everywhere,â she said.
The federal government has been responsible for investigating and prosecuting “major crimes” in the Indian country since 1885. A century later, child sex abuse was added to the list of crimes. But it is only in the last decade that the Justice Department has been required to publicly disclose what happened to these investigations – disclosures that suggest that many cases of child sexual abuse are passing. between the stitches of the net.
Howard Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of Department of Justice data shows that the FBI has “administratively shut down” more than 1,900 criminal investigations into child sexual abuse in the Indian country since 2011. Such cases are not. referred to federal prosecutors because, according to the FBI, they do not meet evidentiary or legal requirements. But child sexual abuse investigations accounted for about 30% of all major crimes on reserves closed by the FBI each year – more than any other type of crime, including murder and assault, according to the analysis.
Department of Justice case management data, analyzed by the Howard Center, shows U.S. lawyers filed complaints less than half the time in child sexual abuse cases from the Indian country – about one third less often than they had lodged a complaint for other crimes. Only a small percentage of children accused of sexual abuse in the Indian country have been tried. Most cases, such as Watchman’s previous child sexual abuse, have ended in plea negotiations, which usually involve lesser sentences.
“There are many more cases of child sexual abuse than reported,” said child psychologist Dolores Subia BigFoot, who leads Native American programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences. Center. âThere are a lot of cases of child sexual abuse that are not investigated, and there are a lot of cases of child sexual abuse that are not prosecuted. “
The fight against child sexual abuse is difficult everywhere. The crime is often committed by a relative or family friend, which increases the pressure on the victim to remain silent. Physical evidence is scarce and conviction may depend on the testimony of someone barely old enough to describe what happened.
But in the Indian country, the problem is complicated by what a former US lawyer calls a “jurisdictional thicket” of tribal and federal authorities spread over vast swathes of land, making communication and coordination difficult.
Tribal courts are limited by US law in the types of cases they can try. The federal government must intervene when the crime is considered major, such as child sexual abuse, or when it occurs on a reserve and the suspect is not aboriginal. Over the reservations of a handful of states, including Alaska and California, that authority has largely been transferred to the state.
This means that the first authorities on the spot must quickly determine the type and location of the crime and the tribal affiliation of the victim and the suspect. If any of these things are involved, the investigations can stop. Crime scenes can turn cold, cases are closed without consequence, and cycles of violence continue.
“I suspect this is the reason why there are so many adults who have this history of child sexual abuse,” said Ornelas, who runs a family rights advocacy center at TsÃ©hootsooÃ Medical Center. of Fort Defiance, Arizona, located in the Navajo Nation. âIt’s been a problem for a long time. And there are a lot of offenders who reoffend and move on to other children in the family.
American lawyers and their prosecuting teams have a great deal of latitude in deciding which cases to take and which to refuse. Justice Department guidelines require them to choose those most likely to “get and maintain a conviction.” Federal prosecutors focus primarily on major fraud and counterterrorism and typically do not prosecute violent crimes, the kind of cases that are handled by local and national prosecutors when the crime occurs off-reserve.
âAt the end of the day, they just focus on the cases that are, you know, relatively easier to handle,â said Troy Eid, former US lawyer from Colorado and current president of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. “I think it’s human nature, isn’t it, and that’s how you stay funded.” He also noted that the Indian country does not have much political constituency, compared to the rest of the American population.
Insufficient evidence is the most often cited reason for closing or refusing to prosecute child sexual abuse cases from Indian country. But it can be a subjective appeal and there is little oversight of cases that are closed or denied, the Howard Center has found.
A former FBI agent, who spoke on condition of not being named, said “there are a lot of cases that have fallen through the cracks” in the Indian country. “I don’t think a lot of people know that,” he said, calling many of the rejected cases a “dark corner of Indian country”.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said decisions not to prosecute were “not a useful measure of outcome in most cases.”
âChild sexual abuse is heinous, illegal and causes lasting damage to young lives,â Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of public affairs, said in a statement. âThe Department of Justice takes its work in addressing violence in Native American communities, particularly child abuse and victimization, very seriously. We will continue to prioritize these efforts, including working with state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to maximize and coordinate our responses to these questions. “
These often unspoken crimes – some elders believe talking about it invites trouble at home – are part of a continuing legacy of sexual trauma that began with colonization and continued into the residential school days in which thousands of indigenous children have been taken from their families in a program of forced cultural assimilation. Chronic alcoholism, poverty and lack of housing – all of which are prevalent on many reserves – are a holdover and contributor to the cycle of child sexual abuse, experts say.
The jurisdiction of tribal courts was expanded slightly in 2013 when the Violence Against Women Act was re-authorized to include non-indigenous domestic abusers. The law did not address sexual crimes against children. A 2021 reauthorization bill gives tribal authorities the right to prosecute non-Indigenous offenders if they sexually abuse a child in tribal territory. But it’s unclear whether this language will survive long-standing concerns in Congress about expanding the power of tribal courts to try and convict non-Indigenous offenders.
“We sometimes forget that the United States has this positive trust obligation to provide public safety or health care or other things to tribal governments and indigenous peoples,” said Trent Shores, former United States district attorney for the district. northern Oklahoma and a member of the Choctaw. Nation. âIt is something that our founding fathers accepted and enshrined in the treaties. And so, you know to me, sometimes there is this frustration when the Indian country is forgotten. “
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series taking place this week.
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