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Training Underway for Sexual Assault Response Teams on Montana Reservations

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Tribal governments in Montana are collaborating with several federal agencies on a pilot program to reduce the high rates of rape and other abuses on Indian lands. Together they are establishing sexual assault response teams (SARTs) on the six federally recognized reservations in the state, according to a press release from the Office of the Associate Attorney General.

"This is something that is really needed here at the reservation, because a lot of our Native women are not reporting [sexual assault] incidences that happened in their lives," Calvin Coolidge Jefferson, vice chairman of the Crow Nation, told Indian Country Today Media Network. "A lot of it is unreported. So now through this program, they’re coming out of the woodwork and trying to get help through this program. Finally, [they feel like] they’re able to come out and seek healing."

On June 5, Jefferson joined Tony West, acting associate attorney general, and Michael W. Cotter, U.S. attorney general, to announce the multi-agency initiative with tribal governments that stems from the Justice Department’s commitment to build safe and healthy American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The Department of Justice, the Indian Health Service (IHS), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and other federal agencies, in partnership with tribes, will help increase services to victims of sexual assault in Montana by providing training opportunities for first responders.

The multidisciplinary teams will be established within the next six months on the state's six federally recognized reservations: the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Crow and Northern Cheyenne. The SART teams will reflect individual community teams and provide culturally appropriate, timely, coordinated and thorough care to victims of sexual assault. SART teams could be made up of federal and tribal prosecutors, victim advocates, tribal agencies and programs, local and federal law enforcement and health care representatives. Teams will meet at least once a month to address incidences of sexual assault that occur on each reservation. Together they will determine the best way to handle each one individually.

“I commend the efforts of those who have worked to develop a culturally appropriate sexual assault response team, or SART, that meets the unique needs of the Crow people,” Jefferson said in a statement. “My hope is that with a formalized SART on the Crow Reservation, our mothers and sisters will have access to justice and to recovery from being victims of these types of deplorable crimes. I want to encourage victims, survivors and their family members to come forward, to offer support to each other in the pursuit of justice and healing.”

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American Indian and Alaska Native women suffer from rape at alarming rates, higher than any other race. Yet sexual assault is still the most underreported crime.

“Sexual violence against native women is one of the most devastating threats to native communities,” West said. “It’s also an underreported crime. We hope this effort to establish SART teams in each Montana reservation will bring the kind of help, healing and justice to victims of sexual violence that will also strengthen the faith and confidence that native women have in their criminal justice system.”

In April 2012, IHS sponsored a regional SART training in Billings, Montana, with participation from the Crow/Northern Cheyenne Hospital, Rocky Boy Health Clinic, Browning Hospital, Fort Peck IHS Service Unit and Crow Tribal Domestic Violence Program.

IHS will host Sexual Assault Examiner training in Billings in July 2012, and will also make forensic equipment, such as digital cameras, available to all IHS and Tribal hospitals in 2012. The Department of Justice and IHS are collaborating on training for evidence collection and with the Department of the Interior on implementation of the Tribal Law and Order Act.

Related: Sexual Assault at University of Montana Under Justice Department Scrutiny