Phoenix, AZ

Child Sexual Abuse Cases Investigated By The Howard Center in Indian Country

Victoria Nogales

PHOENIX, AZ - Indian Country faces a serious problem of child sexual abuse. The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has found federal data indicating hundreds of cases are missing from government radar.

During a major incident involving child sexual abuse in Indian Country, the FBI and the U.S. attorneys are responsible for investigating and prosecuting. Since 2011, The Howard Center has examined Justice Department data and found that the FBI had "closed administratively" more than 1,900 criminal investigations pertaining to child sexual abuse in Indian Country. According to the FBI, these cases don't meet evidentiary or statutory requirements and are therefore not referred to federal prosecutors. Each year, the FBI closed about 30% of all major crimes committed on reservations for child sex abuse - more than for murders or assaults, according to the Howard Center.

Further, federal prosecutors pursued charges in Indian Country child sexual abuse cases less than half the time, according to an analysis of case management data from the Justice Department. There were about one-third fewer charges filed for these crimes than for others. An analysis of Indian country child abuse defendants showed that a small percentage were brought to court. In most cases, plea bargains resulted in lesser sentences.

Some researchers estimate that one in two children in Indigenous communities could be affected by child sexual abuse, but there is little good data to support this claim.

Pediatrician Renée Ornelas said she sees a history of child sexual abuse in practically every family she sees in the Navajo Nation.

In any country, it is difficult to combat child sexual abuse. Victims are frequently intimidated into silence by relatives or family friends who commit the crime. It is rare to find physical evidence, and conviction depends on the testimony of someone barely old enough to remember what happened. One former U.S. attorney referred to the problem in Indian Country as a "jurisdictional thicket", one that covers vast swaths of territory and makes coordinating and communicating impossible.

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