Little justice for child victims of sexual abuse in Indian country | Health

(AP) – 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 Ren̩e Ornelas, a seasoned pediatric child abuse specialist working in the Navajo Nation Рthe largest and most populous tribe in the United States Рsaid virtually every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse.

“They are just little victims everywhere,” she said.

The federal government has been responsible for investigating and prosecuting “major crimes” in the Indian country since 1885. Child sex abuse was added a century later. 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 filed 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 a lot more cases of child sexual abuse than what is reported,” said child psychologist Dolores Subia BigFoot, a Caddo Nation citizen who runs Native American programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. the University of Oklahoma. “There 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 as well as the tribal citizenship 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 that 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 Tséhootsooí medical center. of Fort Defiance, Arizona, located in the Navajo Nation. “It’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.

Department of Justice guidelines require US lawyers and their prosecuting teams to choose cases most likely to “obtain and maintain a conviction.” But, if not, they have a great deal of latitude in deciding what to accept and what to refuse. Federal prosecutors focus primarily on major fraud and counterterrorism and typically do not prosecute violent crimes, the kind of cases dealt with regularly by local and state prosecutors.

“At the end of the day, they just focus on the cases that are, you know, relatively easier to handle,” said Troy Eid, former US lawyer in 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.

Lack of Evidence Most Often Cited for Not Prosecuting 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 the large number of rejected cases a “dark corner in Indian country”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said prosecutors’ variations were “not a useful measure of outcome in most cases.”

“Child sexual abuse is heinous, illegal and causes lasting damage to young lives,” Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of public affairs, said in a statement. “The 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 them creates trouble at home – are part of a continuing legacy of sexual trauma that began with colonization and continued through the residential school days over the years. which thousands of indigenous children were 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 Choctaw citizen. Nation. “It is something that our founding fathers accepted and enshrined in the treaties. “


It took Navajo Police three hours to get to Watchman Farm after the family reported the kidnapping. Such delays are not uncommon. A recent independent assessment by the Navajo Police Department found that “dangerously weak” personnel resulted in slow response times.

The report states that as of October 2020, there were 158 patrollers to cover 27,000 square miles and 173,000 residents. Other issues noted include the lack of internet or cell phone service in parts of the Navajo Nation, which has few actual addresses.

Phillip Francisco, chief of the Navajo Nation Police Department, said the incident involving the girl did not merit an Amber alert because “there was no reason to believe she was in imminent danger or injury serious bodily harm “. He said that it was a “permanent problem” and that the girl “left voluntarily with the father”. Nonetheless, the ministry posted a “missing / in danger” notice on its Facebook page a day after the two disappeared.

Ozzy Watchman Sr. has mentioned wanting to spend Father’s Day fishing at Wheatfields Lake on the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-New Mexico border, his uncle, Leonard Watchman, said.

When he disappeared with the girl on the Friday before the holidays, Leonard Watchman said he told police, but no one seemed to be listening. In the end, this is exactly where the two were spotted.

The girl spent three days, including her 16th birthday, in the hospital. Watchman was arrested and later charged with an earlier assault on the girl’s mother. After the December kidnapping, the girl told a relative that her father had sex with her on several occasions, the parent said. The authorities were informed, but nothing happened.

“The sex offender was taking the girl away and it seems nobody cares,” said Alice Watchman.

In the vacuum between the federal government’s responsibility for major crimes in the Indian country and the judicial authority and limited resources of Native Americans, the tribes are adopting a variety of approaches to healing and justice.

Amber Kanazbah Crotty, one of only three women in the 24-member legislative body of the Navajo Nation, works to revitalize family advocacy centers, which offer forensic interviews and the collection of physical evidence to facilitate prosecution, as well as tips for giving children a chance to tell their stories to promote self-healing.

“At all levels, we have to be responsible (for) what happens to our children,” Crotty said. “I can’t depend on an investigator or a court system to provide or make this whole person.”

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