VIDEO: In Grand Forks, Heitkamp seeks allies in renewal of violence against women actThe Democratic senator visits with Grand Forks social-service and law-enforcement agencies as part of a state tour.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
North Dakota’s new U.S. senator, Heidi Heitkamp, has spent this recess week crossing the state meeting with community leaders about the fight in Congress over re-upping the Violence Against Women Act.
Dating back two decades, the law’s reauthorization is being challenged in the House after the Senate passed it Feb. 12.
Part of the opposition has to do with a provision that would allow Indian tribal courts on reservations to try cases of Indian women attacked on reservations by non-tribal members.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, met for more than an hour Thursday in Grand Forks with about 45 leaders of social-service and law-enforcement agencies, as well as court and school officials; 15 of them sat around a table with her, each saying their piece.
Federal officials have estimated that one-third of American Indian women will be sexually assaulted during their life, Michelle Rivard-Parks told Heitkamp. As a special judge with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas, former tribal prosecutor on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation and the assistant director at UND’s Tribal Judicial Institute, she said she sees “a lot of gaps” in addressing the problem.
When non-tribal members are accused of crimes against tribal members, tribal courts often can’t prosecute, and federal and state courts often don’t see it as a priority, partly because of lack of funding, she said.
Yet domestic violence and sex crimes are much more common on the state’s reservations than other places, Rivard-Parks told Heitkamp: “How do we reduce these rates?”
Heitkamp promised to fight to keep funding for Indian courts in the VAWA bill.
The meeting Thursday was held in the Community Violence Intervention Center downtown, which Heitkamp praised as a success story that can be a model for other communities across the country.
Heitkamp several times referred to her tenure as the state’s attorney general from 1992 to 2000, which she said made her familiar with the interplay between social services, law enforcement and the court system in addressing violence against women. A 1977 graduate of UND, Heitkamp knew many of the people in the room by first name.
When she got involved in the issues 20 years ago, it was rare for police chiefs to cooperate with rape and abuse advocates, she said.
Grand Forks Police Chief John Packett said cooperation with CVIC has paid dividends, literally, saving his department $180,000 in overtime because of the services and resources provided by counselors and others from CVIC.
Thursday’s meeting was a sign of how much things have changed for the better, she said.
The incidence of domestic violence in the state has been lowered by about 50 percent over the past 20 years, she said.
That’s great, and was done in large part because of the federal funds that VAWA provided, she said.
“But that’s not good enough,” she said, saying more must be done.
The community cooperation she sees that has worked in Grand Forks is a model that can used elsewhere, she said, which makes passing VAWA so vital.
UND Police Chief Eric Plummer said sexual assaults on campuses are a major problem and under-reported, and usually not “stranger rapes,” but involved friends or acquaintances. Most are connected to the abuse of alcohol and drugs, and he wants to see more education of students, even before they leave high school, about those danger factors, he said.
That will take funding, he said.
Heitkamp said Packett’s example and others, including school programs, too often aren’t given the credit for saving government spending down the line.
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said he’s been in law enforcement long enough that he’s seeing the children of people he saw decades ago in trouble for domestic violence and other crimes.
“We want to show kids... this is not the way it should be,” Rost said.
He, Packett and others praised the two-year old “Safer Tomorrows” program run out of CVIC that goes into public school classrooms in Grand Forks County to intervene and prevent all forms of violence in children’s lives.
But the needs aren’t decreasing, said Kate Kenna, director of the state’s Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks. She said her agency has about 200 children at any time needing foster care, and only about 50 families providing it, down from about 80 a few years ago.
Heitkamp said, “We are often being penny-wise and pound-foolish,” by not devoting resources to helping young people escape or avoid cycles of violence.
She said what she heard Thursday “gives me the ammunition I need to go back and talk about these programs.”
On the Web: To see video of Heitkamp’s meeting, go to GrandForksHerald.com.
Call Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1237; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.