ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The epidemic of children being exposed to violence in communities across the nation will have to become more of a public discussion before the cycle can end, members of a national task force assembled by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
The National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence held its second public meeting in Albuquerque to gather testimony from victims and experts on violence in rural and Native-American communities — two areas often plagued by higher incidents of poverty and child abuse but with fewer options for help.
Robert Listenbee Jr., co-chair of the 13-member task force, ticked off a list of statistics that painted a grim picture of the challenges facing those communities.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in the nation, he said. They also have a higher rate of gang involvement than Latinos and African-American youth, and suicide ranks among the leading causes of death for young Native boys.
"These facts are staggering," Listenbee told the crowd. "But perhaps even more alarming is the difficulty many children and families face in getting help."
The isolation of tribal and rural communities complicates matters. Victims of domestic violence and clergy sex abuse testified about having nowhere to turn for help and the difficulties of finding help outside their communities.
Elsie Boudreau of the Alaska Native Justice Center said there are no roads in or out of some of Alaska's Native communities and a $600 plane ticket to the nearest city is out of reach for many.
In New Mexico, many reservations are far from population centers, and public transportation doesn't exist.
Another challenge is the private nature of domestic violence. Experts and task force members said it's a difficult conversation to have when victims — and even community leaders — are not willing to talk about the problem.
"We address drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, all of these things, but we never look at the impacts on our children," said Gil Vigil, a former governor of Tesuque Pueblo who testified Thursday. "We address symptoms but never the whole problem. That's what we're trying to do here."
The task force will be hosting additional hearings in Miami and Detroit later this year. In December, it plans to issue a final report to Holder that will include policy recommendations and a national blueprint for preventing and reducing the negative effects of children being exposed to violence.
That blueprint won't be based on just one recipe, said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales of New Mexico. He said the needs of children and their families can be drastically different depending on whether they are Native American or Alaska Native, from a rural area in middle America or from the big city.
Despite the differences, Gonzales said the lasting effects of being exposed to violence can lead to similar results, with children acting out and getting tangled up in the justice system. Finding a solution could help keep children from becoming defendants in the future, he said.
Joe Torre, former New York Yankees manager and co-chair of the task force, shared his own story. His father abused his mother, but it was never talked about. It was only decades later that he came to understand the implications.
"The lasting effects were feelings of fear and embarrassment, and I thought I was the only one who felt this way, that there was something wrong with me," Torre said. "The feelings of inadequacy that I was experiencing were really tied to what went on in my home during my childhood."
Torre acknowledged that limiting children's exposure to violence, whether it be on a reservation or elsewhere, won't be easy.
"You have to take baby steps and start making inroads and getting some tools to work with," he said. "Then down the road, we anticipate that we can make a big impression. It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be quick."
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