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Work Still Left to Be Done, Tony West: Repeal VAWA to Include Alaska

Associate Attorney General Tony West on June 11 shared his support of a Violence Against Women Act repeal to include Alaska.
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As the Advisory Committee of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence held its final public meeting in Anchorage, Alaska on June 11, Associate Attorney General Tony West voiced support for the repeal of section 910 of the Reauthorization of the Women’s Against Violence act of 2013 – which generally excludes Alaska from the restored tribal jurisdiction provisions of the Act.

The repeal would be a meaningful change that could help protect Alaska Native victims of domestic violence according to a White House press release. The Task Force, which was created last year, is focused on examining the “pervasive problems associated with American Indian and Alaska Native children exposed to violence in their homes, schools, and communities,” the press release stated.

“[W]e have come to Alaska to focus on the problems facing young people living in Alaska Native villages. We have come to Alaska, where the realities of geography and jurisdiction make this a place like no other; where the challenges of reducing the exposure of children to violence is particularly unique, particularly complex, and particularly hard,” West said.

“The important work which we have pursued in Indian country throughout the lower 48 to reduce violence against Native women and children, to reduce sex trafficking, to improve the health and safety of Native communities – the need for that work is particularly acute here, in this beautiful and magnificent state that spans an area larger than Texas, Montana and California combined.

“It is a need that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have, over the last five years, worked hard to address.”

West touched on the close to 1,000 grants that have been filled by the Justice Department since 2010 that total nearly $440 million to improve public safety in Native communities. He said that on a per capita basis, the seven percent that has reached Alaska and the Alaska Native villages, is on par with the funding dispersed in the lower 48 before sharing some key examples.

“And, yet, as significant as these efforts are – and make no mistake, they are life-changing in their significance – we're also mindful that it's not enough,” West said. “It's not enough when Alaska Native women comprise less than 20 percent of this state's overall population but represent nearly half of all reported rape victims. It's not enough when Alaska Natives are two-and-a-half times more likely to die by homicide than Alaskans whose skin is white. It's not enough when, as recently as 2011, Native children comprised more than half of all maltreatment reports substantiated by Alaska’s child protective services and over 60 percent of all children removed from their homes. It's not enough when, as Marcia Hurd told me she heard yesterday in an Alaska Native village, a child's most fervent wish is not for toys or candy but for water that is simply clean.”

One reason for the tougher than normal conditions facing the Alaska Native villages is the lack of resources and dedicated state law enforcement officers.

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“And, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of many dedicated state law enforcement officers, a lack of resources compounds an already untenable situation,” West stated. “State Department of Public Safety officers, who have primary law enforcement responsibility in rural areas, are, on average, able to devote only one to one-and-a-half field officers to patrol every million acres of land.

“Few Native communities have their own enforcement personnel, and the Village Public Safety Officers who serve as first responders under Alaska State Trooper oversight are spread thin, inconsistently trained and unarmed. At least 75 communities lack any law enforcement presence at all.

“This means many Native crime victims – especially children – have little, if any, access to even the most basic services.”

West feels there is no reason to throw up our hands in a sign of defeat, but instead it’s time to turn the tide and break the cycle.

“One step Attorney General Holder and I believe we can take is to enhance the ability of Alaska Natives to issue and enforce domestic violence protection orders in the same way tribes in the lower 48 can do now. And that’s why the Department supports Congress’ repeal of Section 910 of last year's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” West said.

RELATED: President Barack Obama’s VAWA Law Signing Spotlights Native Women Warriors

A child should feel the safest in the presence of family at home, but as West pointed out that is often not the case in Indian country, but now VAWA provides Native youth full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection in the lower 48 – and it’s needed in Alaska as well. West understands that there will be competing arguments about the repeal to include Alaska, but feels the ultimate duty is to protect the Native children and work towards providing them with a violence free future.

“[T]he repeal of Section 910 won’t, by itself, change the landscape for domestic violence victims overnight, it is more than just symbolic. Repeal of Section 910 is an important step that can help protect Alaska Native victims of that violence and, significantly, the children who often witness it, and it can send a message that tribal authority and tribal sovereignty matters; that the civil protection orders tribal courts issue ought to be respected and enforced,” West said.