Native communities hit hard by domestic violence in Calif.'s Del Norte County (Part 3)

Even though people in Del Norte County have been reporting domestic violence at a staggering rate, most abuse is suffered in secrecy.

Native American communities are disproportionately affected. 

While Native people make up about 10 percent of Del Norte’s general population, they are consistently at least 25 percent of the victim caseload for the county’s major service providers and the state court system.

Native children are a lot more likely to be included in referrals to the county’s department for Child Welfare Services, according to agency data analyzed from 2009-2012. 

During that time, about two-thirds of Del Norte’s CWS referrals involved reports of domestic violence. 

Some 33 percent of CWS referrals involved Native children, while white kids made up just 25 percent of referrals, despite white people accounting for 80 percent of the general population.

The Yurok Tribe recently declared a state of emergency after a rash of suicides in Weitchpec. Throughout the Tribe’s ancestral lands along the Klamath River, many wonder how to stop the violence and desperation, to restore ways of life they feel have been systematically destroyed by state and federal policies during the Termination Era. 

“Understanding where it comes from is important. It helps people find a solution,” said Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti.

“You’re looking at a situation where you have intergenerational trauma. You have a history that is not pleasant between us and other cultures. You had massacres. You had people carried off to boarding schools and now, you have a tremendous amount of poverty. You have more of our children being suspended from school. Why does that happen?”

Abinanti said she stopped asking people why they do bad things during her years as judge for the San Francisco Superior Court. 

“It seemed like a rhetorical question, like in fact I was going to tell them why they did it. Many people don’t understand why they get into behaviors that they themselves do not like. The bottom line is we are each responsible.” 

Abinanti is currently the only judge in the Yurok Tribal justice system. Her court’s jurisdiction has grown in recent years, from being limited to mostly fishing-related disputes to handling all kinds of misdemeanor crimes involving tribal members and their spouses, upwards of 6,000 people.  

In the last five years, The Yurok Tribe was awarded $7.7 million in U.S. Department of Justice grants to improve public safety, create alternatives to incarceration, and provide services for crime victims on the reservation. 

The funding came through the Tribal Law and Order Act, which Congress passed in 2010 to address higher rates of violent crime in Indian country.

Abinanti said the approach at the new Justice Center is much older than Congress, and the reservation system it created.  

“Our particular belief system is that if you do a wrong, you take responsibility for it. If you don’t, then you can’t go forward,” Abinanti said.

Taking responsibility and going forward isn’t about isolating punishments, or making already poor people pay steep fines, she said. Her court aims to rebuild the community and keep people out of jail. 

“What I’m trying to do is figure out how to change behavior… That’s hugely different than creating consequences for behavior in the hopes that you somehow deter it,” Abinanti said.  

Alternative sentencing

One effort to help change abusive behavior is the Yurok Tribe’s Batterer’s Intervention Program. 

The BIP model marries group therapy to probation. 

For example, most of the people in the tribe’s new BIP are ordered to take part, either as part of a court sentence or a child welfare intervention, said Lori Nesbitt, who facilitates a BIP group for women with ties to the Yurok Tribe. 

Like the men’s group in the program, they’re people who’ve often been both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. 

The Tribe’s BIP is the second of its kind in Del Norte, and it started last year. 

One woman in the more long-running BIP offered through the county system said that the sessions she’s taking do make a difference.

“It puts it on paper and it puts it in your face. It was just this realization, like, ‘Oh my God this is really what’s going on in my life, and they are showing me the steps to break the cycle,” the Crescent City resident said. 

Nesbitt was less optimistic. She was interviewed at the end of a day when none of the women in her group showed up for their weekly meeting. 

One of the exercises for the BIP asks participants to identify their triggers, the things that tend to escalate normal feelings of jealousy and anger into violent or abusive behavior. Then participants in the group share and respond to each other.

“They need somebody to listen to them. It relates to the family structure breaking down,”, Nesbitt said.

“When your kids come home, and you ask what happened at school, and they say, ‘Nothing.’ Don’t accept that. Ask more questions,” she urged. 

Fellow Yurok Tribal Probation Officer Ron Bates runs the men’s group for the Tribal BIP. It’s comprised of 52 weekly sessions, but usually takes most people longer than a year to complete.

“People get caught up in that 52 weeks,” Ron said. 

They have to complete homework assignments and participate in group sessions, not just sit in the chair and wait it out.

Ron estimated that alcohol and drug use figured into nearly every family involved in the men’s group. 

While the Tribe is adopting a state-sanctioned model, Ron also said it’s key for the program to be facilitated by Yurok people.

“I think it helps to know each other as we are going through. Who is going to hold the community responsible? It should be the community and I am a part of that,” he said. 

Helping without judgement

Vicky Bates is Ron’s sister, and a victim services coordinator for the Yurok Tribe, another position created through the DOJ’s increased funding for justice programs.

Vicky’s cell phone rings when people call a crisis hotline for the reservation. 

She says her job is to help people, not judge them. 

“When you go out to help somebody you have to remember that you are not the one making this choice. You are only there to give them a helping hand to move out of whatever situation they’re in, show them resources, and show them there’s another life,” Vicky said. 

She said most of the people she works with “are not choosing to leave the partner.”

The reasons are manifold. 

“A lot of people we work with in the Weitchpec area don’t have phone services. A lot of the housing upriver is broken down. They are a hard people to help because they don’t have vehicles or phones. How do you help them? We get them a bag of emergency supplies together in case they have to run down the road.”

Vicky said she spends a lot of time providing transportation, taking people to medical appointments, or to the nearest grocery store in Crescent City, 22 miles from Klamath. 

“When I leave at five o’clock, or six o’clock, or nine o’clock at night, I have to shrug my shoulders and then go home to my family,” she said.  

These days, the 55-year-old is a grandmother, a single parent and the head of a multigenerational household.

In years gone by, she’s supported as many as eight children, financially and emotionally. 

No stranger to domestic violence, this is her first time getting paid to deal with its effects. 

With so much pressure and so many stresses outside her control, Vicky said she understands why “it’s hard not to reach out and slug.”

She reflected on her first marriage, which began when she was 16. 

“Alcohol was always his problem,” she said.

Even defining domestic violence can be a challenge from her vantage point.

By the DOJ’s definition, we’re talking about “a pattern of abusive behavior,” to exert control over an intimate partner or family member. 

“I look it up all the time, because it’s like, life is abusive, and you’re certainly in a domestic relationship with life,” Vicky said.  

A community responsibility

About a decade ago the California Department of Health Services put together a big-picture perspective on reducing domestic violence across the state. It tapped the foremost thinkers in the fields of prevention and intervention to create recommendations for policymakers, healthcare professionals, educators, social workers and anyone hoping to make a difference. 

In a nutshell: “The entire community must take responsibility for ending violence against women.”

The state health department’s analysis goes on to say this will require nothing short of changing the culture, “so that violence against women is no longer tolerated.” 

It calls on schools to offer education programs about healthy relationships, and for public agencies to collaborate more when they intervene in a home that’s already in a bad way. 

But interagency coordination is a tall order in a small rural county where every branch of law enforcement, every governmental jurisdiction, and nearly every service provider has a different information management system.

The means a pattern of abuse is usually dealt with on a incident-by-incident basis. 

While the people working the intervention system are often the most sworn to secrecy about their clients. 

Lori Nesbitt said the new tribal BIP she’s facilitating is only a start.

“I think we are all curious to find solutions, and I don’t think we’ve found them yet. Part of the madness of domestic violence is that every case is different and we’re trying to fit them in a box.”

Nesbitt said that if she could wave a magic wand and change one factor contributing to domestic violence among Yurok people, it would be “the right to education for all and everyone treated equally,” especially by law enforcement. 

But she doesn’t actually work with wishes, only reality. 

[This story was originally published by Del Norte Triplicate.]