At a roundtable discussion Tuesday morning, law enforcement officials, attorneys, members of victim advocacy groups and tribal representatives shared stories from the front lines of the battle against domestic violence.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., hosted the event at United Tribes Technical College to explore statewide interest in the Violence Against Women Act.
The legislation was recently reauthorized by the U.S. Senate, 78-22. Heitkamp was one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
The discussion was one of several Heitkamp is hosting around the state this week. The other cities include Jamestown, Fargo, Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Belcourt.
One of the major changes in the Senate’s version of the act would close a jurisdictional loophole that made it difficult for Native women to prosecute non-Native men for abuse.
The proposed changes would allow the tribal court system to prosecute non-Native men accused of domestic violence. However, the appeals process would continue through the federal court system.
Heitkamp and UTTC President David Gipp started the discussion by stressing the importance of addressing violence against women.
“It is absolutely critical that we pass and fund (the Violence Against Women Act),” Heitkamp said.
She cited the formerly contentious relationship between law enforcement and victim advocacy groups that has turned to collaboration as a major step forward in recent years.
She asked the members of the roundtable to discuss other issues they are facing in addressing domestic abuse and other violence against women.
Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha said he has seen a rise in domestic abuse reports, a fact echoed by other attorneys and law enforcement officials present.
Specifically, Bismarck Police Chief Dan Donlin said that his department has seen an increase in domestic disputes that have turned violent.
Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Pam Nesvig and Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter detailed problems they face in prosecuting domestic violence cases, namely victim location and lack of public awareness.
“Selling domestic violence to juries can be hard,” Goter said. She added that many people don’t realize how prevalent it is.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than women of other races.
Standing Rock Sioux Chief Prosecutor Grant Walker reported more than 200 domestic violence cases in 2009, with only slightly lower numbers the following years. Already in January and the first two weeks of February, there have been 25 cases.
These numbers, he said, do not include cases that are reported but go uninvestigated.
The most emotional moment of the discussion came from Bismarck resident Samantha Lindgren, a victim of an abusive relationship.
After a long time of planning — putting money away in a secret bank account and sending her kids to her aunt’s so she could pick them up and never go back — she was able to leave her reservation, and her relationship, for Bismarck.
For the victim advocacy groups, like the Abused Adult Resource Center in Bismarck, the biggest issue is funding, along with problems being able to provide for a growing population and a lack of affordable housing in the western areas of the state.
Greta Baker, the law and order liaison for Standing Rock Indian Reservation, said the reservation is in the beginning stages of developing its own shelter.
At the end, Heitkamp once again underscored the importance of the Violence Against Women Act, saying it was “such a success story.”
These programs can work, she said. This funding makes a difference.
In particular, Heitkamp made it clear she would not vote for the legislation without the protections for Native women in it.
“We will not let Native American women be second-class citizens in our state or our country,” she said.
The legislation was killed by the U.S. House of Representatives in November. The House has yet to vote on the new bill that passed the Senate.