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Child abuse on the rise, committee finds

WASHINGTON – A Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing March 15 addressed amendments to the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act, but a good deal of the committee’s questioning focused on the IHS’ failure to enact provisions of the original legislation.

“Aren’t there provisions of the 1990 act that haven’t been implemented?” Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked IHS Deputy Director Robert McSwain. Among the disregarded provisions are an IHS-specific national registry of child abusers and regional family health centers.

McSwain answered that “in lieu of” the registry, the IHS has gotten aggressive in its background checks of potential employees. Dorgan interrupted him: “My disappointment is that we’ve been through this before ... Either you have the will to do this or you don’t … This is not optional. We really have an obligation to aggressively ... protect these kids.”

McSwain replied, in essence, that the IHS budget is limited. Dorgan rehearsed the budgeting process for him as McSwain fell silent: the Office of Management and Budget tells the IHS what its funding will be, the White House establishes the funding in its federal budgetary blueprint, IHS officials repeat the figures to Congress, and the IHS is left to fend for itself when prioritizing against an appropriation from Congress that can’t possibly fulfill the demands placed on it by law.

Dorgan said that 40 percent of Indian health needs are unserved. Under the scenario Dorgan spelled out, the problem for IHS isn’t one of will but of resource scarcity – Congress is burdening the IHS with unfunded mandates.

Later in the hearing, committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returned to the issue with a different witness. “When you have a federal law to address an issue and no appropriations with it, and no request for appropriations from any administration, it’s very disappointing to our Indian communities.”

McCain suggested to Dorgan that the committee may not have been aggressive enough with appropriators, adding that they should get together on a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As Congress resumes its ritualized dance through in the federal budget process, which for Indian country predictably prompted a comment from Dorgan that “We don’t even get the crumbs [of funding] in most cases,” child abuse in Indian country is on the rise. McSwain said that despite some uncertainty about the actual rate of child abuse in Indian country, that rate is trending upward.

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“There is a definite increase,” he said.

McCain linked the increase to methamphetamine use, rampant in Indian country and much of rural America in recent years.

The “crystal meth” crisis, along with other factors in Indian communities, has contributed to forms of child neglect that can’t always be prosecuted as a federal felony, according to a BIA witness who urged the committee to add child neglect within Indian country to the list of federal offenses under the Major Crimes Act.

James Burrus Jr., acting assistant director of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division, told the committee that Indian child physical abuse cases represented approximately one-third of all FBI investigations within Indian country between fiscal years 2003 and 2006. The vast majority of the physical abuse investigations, 1,658 to be precise, involved Indian child sexual abuse, Burrus said.

The research of Paul Steele, director of the Center for Justice Studies at Morehead State University, indicates that Indian child sexual abuse rates mirror the national pattern.

In the overall field of child protection in Indian country, said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “there is a fundamental problem with resources.”

Senate Bill 1899 seeks to remove barriers to the reduction of Indian child abuse, eliminate the “system-induced trauma” to children of abuse investigation procedures, and provide timely “telemed,” minimally invasive examinations of abuse victims.

But as Steele reminded the committee in his written testimony, “many concerns about child welfare are not with the [original] law as written, but with its implementation (or lack thereof).”