Sen. Johnson: Addressing domestic violence in Indian Country

The following is the opinion of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota).

Late last month, I met with several domestic violence advocates and law enforcement personnel to discuss domestic violence and sexual assault programs in the Sioux Falls area and throughout South Dakota and Indian Country. The message from our conversation was that programs are working, but more can be done to continue to reduce the incidence of domestic violence and sexual assault. While Domestic Violence Awareness Month is observed in October, this really is a year-round issue, and I would like to take the opportunity to focus on it.

Earlier this year, I joined 67 of my colleagues in the United States Senate in passing a bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This measure was supported by two-thirds of the Senate—both Democrats and Republicans—including every female Senator. Despite this, the legislation was met with partisan opposition when it reached the House of Representatives.

Many provisions in the Senate bill were added to ensure that more victims affected by domestic violence and sexual assault are able to access programs that will keep them safe from harm and continued victimization. In particular, American Indians received additional protection in the Senate version. American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence and one in three will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. These statistics are staggering and I commend the efforts of those working to reverse the occurrence and frequency of domestic violence and sexual assault in Indian Country.

The bipartisan Senate version added provisions that would allow for prosecution of offenders in limited circumstances in our Indian Communities – a necessary component to stop the cycle of violence. Domestic violence victims on federal reservations would be able to seek justice, without fear of jurisdictional complications. Tribal courts and law enforcement will see increased tools to combat this epidemic. I supported these provisions both in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and when these issues came before the full Senate.

The version of the VAWA reauthorization reported by the House of Representatives included provisions aimed at the clarifying protection orders for American Indian victims; however, protection without prosecution is an empty gesture which will lead to the continued belief that our Indian communities are loopholes in criminal jurisdiction. In addition, because of the challenges for Indian victims in accessing federal courts, protection orders issued only by federal courts are not a practical or effective intervention for crimes that demand local response and local jurisdiction by tribal authorities. This authority should rest with the federal courts, as well as the local tribal courts.

Protection and prosecution are vital to addressing the problem, but also more time and resources need to be focused on prevention efforts. Also last month, I toured an alcohol and substance abuse center on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. As we all know, alcohol and substance abuse often lead to domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition to alcohol and substance abuse programs, more emphasis needs to be placed on mental health services for victims and their families. I will continue to use my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to ensure these programs have funding to continue efforts to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault.

When Congress reconvenes, I hope the House of Representatives will pass the Senate version of the VAWA reauthorization. This reauthorization passed with a supermajority of votes in the Senate, a feat in itself during these times of exceptional political rancor. With the passage of this bipartisan measure by the House of Representatives, we would continue on the path of reducing domestic violence and sexual assault in South Dakota and across the Nation.

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