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Increased funding needed for child protection bill

WASHINGTON - Rescuing Indian children and families from the clutches of abuse and violence may begin with professional health programs and other intervention efforts but it must extend to federal funding as well, Dr. Charles Grim told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at a hearing Sept. 24.

The head of the Indian Health Services joined four other professionals in offering support for Senate bill 1601, the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2003. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate committee, hopes to "mark up" the bill in October for later consideration of the full Senate.

Grim also joined the other witnesses in noting the need for increased funding of child protection and family violence prevention services in Indian country. "Data indicates an average of approximately 4,500 clinical contacts a year related to child abuse, neglect, and the psychological after effects of such victimization," Grim said. "The number of contacts has remained at approximately the same level for several years. It is high, it is unacceptable, it happens for many reasons, but it does not happen in isolation from the economic and social problems plaguing Indian country. It will take resources, not only for IHS, but for a broad range of federal and tribal support to improve not just clinical services for abuse victims, but to positively affect the underlying economic and social cauldron of despair from which so much of the violence in Indian country springs."

Other witnesses acknowledged a strong need for better character checks of all who are hired for positions that would put them in contact with Indian children, but warned that a law to that effect without funding would amount to an unfounded mandate Indian communities cannot afford. Mark Lewis, director of the Guidance Center of the Hopi Tribe, underscored the need for resources by noting that the Hopi have only two criminal investigators for their vast reservation in Arizona. At the same time, no tribe better illustrates the need for security consciousness regarding children. The abuse of hundreds of Hopi children by a teacher, over almost a decade, made national news and eventually led to the implementation of the original Indian Child Abuse and Family Violence Protection Act of 1990, which Campbell hopes to update.

Reauthorization would expand the original law in numerous necessary ways, according to the testimony of Garland Brunoe, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon.

Section 3 of the proposed reauthorization would extend the definition of "child abuse" to family violence against children. Section 4 "would require tribes to report non-Indians to state law enforcement agencies in abuse or family violence occurrences where a criminal violation is indicated." Section 5 would authorize studies of the barriers to reducing child abuse in Indian country, with emphasis on jurisdictional and intergovernmental issues. Section 6 would mandate background checks for federal, tribal contract, and volunteer personnel whose work puts them in contact with Indian children and it would make the "backgrounding" process more demanding. Section 7 would make IHS treatment grants available for all victims of child abuse, rather than only child sexual abuse victims, as at present. Section 8 would provide for Department of Justice involvement in the staffing and operation of regional Indian Child Resource and Family Services Centers. "Section 9 requires that tribes operating their own Child Protection and Family Violence Protection program under a contract from the BIA must clearly designate responsibility for child abuse coordination and reporting, and for the treatment and prevention of child abuse. The Section further helps tribally operated programs by authorizing tribes to provide training for any required child protection certifications, to help ensure the safety of child protection workers while on the job, and to improve data systems for case and program monitoring and evaluation. Annual tribal program reports would also have to include information on training, threats to worker safety, and community outreach and awareness efforts."

But Brunoe's comprehensive review of the reauthorization document's many virtues came to a familiar point: "? more than anything else, the overall reauthorization of the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act, and its funding, is essential."

Reauthorization of a bill not only updates it in response to evolving needs; it also protects it from cuts in the federal budget.

Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, provided extensive testimony that emphasized the national undercount of Indian child abuse victims. National numbers are understated by about 40 percent, he said, because states do not report cases of Indian child abuse that are handled by tribes. Even so, the Department of Health and Human Services reported a 2001 victimization rate of 20.1 per 1,000 Indian children, compared with 10.6 per 1,000 white children.

But the rate of Indian child abuse, high by any count, contains important subtleties, Cross said, citing a 2001 analysis of existing studies. "The findings from this analysis also show increases in overall cases of child abuse and/or neglect involving Indian children, lower rates of sexual and physical abuse when compared to white children, and high rates of child neglect among Indian children." Sixty-five percent of Indian child abuse cases are related to substance abuse, he said.

Cross seconded several others at the hearing in advocating culturally sensitive treatment programs. Section 7 of the bill would encourage these under grant treatment program provisions.

The text of S. 1601 can be accessed on the Internet at http://indian.senate.gov. Click on legislation at left of the splash page and scroll down to find the bill in numerical order.