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Care for Abused Indian Children Inadequate, Panel Told

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Washington--Despite the widespread attention paid to reports of child abuse on Indian reservations, prevention programs and efforts to provide mental-health care to victims are being hampered by geographic and cultural barriers, experts in child psychology and law enforcement told a House panel last week.

"What's happening on the reservations [in child protective services] is about 10 years behind the states," Jane N. Burnley, director of the Justice Department's office for victims of crimes, told the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.

Ms. Burnley, who helped establish a special fund in her office to assist victims in a highly publicized case of child sexual abuse on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, was one of several witnesses who testified during the first in a series of hearings to be held at sites across the nation on abuse in schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and on Indian reservations generally.

Representative James McDermott, Democrat of Washington, said the field hearings, which the committee plans to hold throughout the spring and summer, also will serve as a sounding board for public comment on a wide-ranging measure, drafted by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

That measure, S 1783, was passed by the Senate in November. It includes mandatory-reporting laws for bia employees and would establish a national database of child-abuse reports on Indian reservations.

The legislation was drafted in response to a sweeping investigation of corruption on Indian lands conducted last year by the Select Committee on Investigations of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

A statement issued by the House Interior Committee said that investigations of sexual-abuse charges do not indicate that "child abuse and neglect is either unique or endemic on Indian reservations."

But, it continued, "[t]he available record does show that the United states, which has a trust responsibility to Indian tribes and people, has simply failed to provide the commitment and funding necessary to deal with the problem."

Walter R. Mills, deputy to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, was among those who argued in favor of a provision in the Senate bill that would impose mandatory-reporting provisions for bia and Indian Health Service employees, as well as for f.b.i. agents and those of other law-enforcement and child-protection agencies.

Although states were required to enact such laws by the Child Abuse Prevention Act of 1978, the Congress has never required that federal agencies, such as the bia, conform to the act.

A report issued by the three-member Senate investigations panel last fall charged that the loophole allowed the bia to "ignore" at least three cases in which known pedophiles preyed on dozens of children enrolled in bia schools.

The bia tightened its policies for reporting child abuse and its program of background checks of potential employees after allegations of widespread sexual abuse in agency schools became public in 1987.

Even so, Mr. Mills said, the b.i.a. received 7,183 complaints of abuse in 1988, of which 10 percent involved sexual abuse.

Witnesses cautioned, however, that mandatory reporting of suspected abuse would be only a partial solution to the problem.

Nicolas V. O'Hara, the deputy assistant director of the fbi's criminal-investigations division, said that even when incidents of abuse and neglect are reported to authorities, cultural factors often hamper investigations.

Because Indians who live on reservations are often separated culturally and geographically from the "American mainstream," he said, "misunder8standings can easily arise" during investigations by agents not versed in Indian folkways.

Mr. O'Hara also suggested that educating school and law-enforcement officials on the symptoms of child sexual abuse would be one of the best ways to prevent it.

Senator McCain this month introduced a second measure, S 2340, that would establish child-resources centers in each of the bia's area offices to aid efforts to prevent and identify abuse. The measure also would establish a grant program to fund efforts by tribes and intertribal consortia to develop child protective services.

Some witnesses were skeptical,however, of Mr. McCain's proposal to establish a database of child-abuse incidents. They cited as potential stumbling blocks to that effort the reservations' isolation and issues of due process for those accused of abuse.

But in written testimony, Diane J. Willis, director of psychological services at the University of Oklahoma's child-study center, argued that information about the problem is sorely lacking.

She said that while more than 2 million children nationwide were reported as abused or neglected in 1989, "[i]t is astounding ... that the incidence and prevalence of physical and sexual abuse and neglect among Indians is unknown."

Witnesses also said mental-health care for victims is meager at best.

"I have not been on an Indian reservation where the amount of mental-health services is what it should be," said Ms. Burnley.

The testimony echoed findings of a report issued last week by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which indicated that Indian youths are more likely to be the victims of physical and sexual abuse than are white students.

The report on "Indian Adolescent Mental Health" also pointed out that the Indian Health Service has only 17 specially trained mental-health professionals to treat almost 400,000 children who live on reservations.

In a separate development, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos last week named one of his predecessors and a state school chief to head a 15-member commission on the state of Indian education.

Former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and Alaska Commissioner of Education William G. Demmert Jr. will co-chair the "Indian Nations at Risk" task force. Mr. Cavazos disclosed plans for such a study panel last fall. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

David L. Beaulieu, manager, Indian-education programs, Minnesota Department of Education; Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, Harvard Medical School; Joseph H. Ely, tribal chairman, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Nevada; Byron Fullerton, former dean, Texas Tech School of Law; Norbert S. Hill Jr., executive director, American Indian Science and Engineering Society; Hayes A. Lewis, superintendent, Zuni Public School District No. 89, New Mexico.

Bob G. Martin, president, Haskell Indian Junior College, Kansas; Janine Pease-Windy Boy, president, Little Big Horn College, Montana; Wilma J. Robinson, director of tribal development, Choctaw Nation, Oklahoma; Ivan L. Sidney, former tribal chairman, Hopi Tribe, Arizona; Robert J. Swan, president, National Indian Education Association; Eddie L. Tullis, chairman, National Advisory Council on Indian Education; L. Lamar White, director, technology center, Florida Department of Education.

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