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Alcohol, drugs and violence take a heavy toll on Indian youths

SHARE Alcohol, drugs and violence take a heavy toll on Indian youths

WASHINGTON — They come into Elaine Newton's court by the dozens, charged with underage drinking, using marijuana, fighting. Some are as young as 11.

They are children without a childhood, sucked into the vortex of drinking and despair that destroys too many people on Colorado's remote Southern Ute Indian reservation. Newton, the tribe's chief judge, sees more and more of them every year.

Many, Newton said, are victims themselves, either of abuse or what she calls "emotional incest."

"That's where children basically are left to feel responsible for their parents' own emotional needs," Newton said. "They feel it's their fault that Mom is drinking or Dad leaves, when it's really not their fault.

"I think we forget they are children."

As crime rates fall nationwide, they are rising in American Indian communities, especially among the 43 percent of Indians under age 20. Indian youths are far more likely to be arrested for alcohol-related crimes than their non-Indian counterparts, according to a report released Thursday by a government advisory panel.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice report said 3 percent of juveniles arrested for liquor law violations are Indian, though Indians make up just 1 percent of all youths. The coalition, a nonprofit group of state advisory boards created under a federal juvenile justice law, recommends expanding programs to fight Indian alcoholism, depression and gangs.

"In states with significant American Indian communities, American Indian youth are found far too frequently in the back of squad cars, rather than in the front of classrooms," the report said.

Juvenile crime is one strand in the web of social problems facing urban and reservation Indian communities, the report said. High reservation unemployment is one factor.

"There are limited opportunities on the reservation, especially those in rural areas," said Kevin Shendoe, a member of New Mexico's Jemez Pueblo who started a group to help youths develop leadership skills. "Given that and the history of alcoholism and poverty, I think it all plays into students getting depressed and frustrated — and in certain serious cases, violent."

Another factor is abuse passed down from generation to generation, often starting with Indian children forced into government or religious boarding schools where tribal culture was suppressed and abuse and neglect were commonplace.

"Cultural oppression has taken a heavy toll on Native Americans for years," Newton said. "There's been a lack of parenting because of boarding schools. Parents don't know how to be parents . . . In society today, you're in between two cultures. They lost their Indian culture and they're struggling with trying to figure out where they fit."

Indians have some of the worst health care and highest death rates from alcoholism, diabetes, accidents and suicide in the nation. That means many young Indians are repeatedly traumatized by deaths of friends and relatives, said Sandi Ernst, a psychologist who ran the White Mountain Apache Tribe's child mental health programs from 1993 to 1999.

A large number of children affected by alcohol in their mothers' wombs also contributes to the crime problem, said Ernst, who now practices in Phoenix. People exposed to alcohol in the womb are more impulsive and often cannot understand consequences of their behavior, she said.

"That increases the likelihood they're going to do stupid things," Ernst said.

Tribal programs, which must rely on federal funding, are too often shortchanged, the report said. Newton said getting enough money to help the children she sentences is a constant problem. Children who have enough Indian heritage to qualify for some federal programs but are not enrolled members of the tribe often fall through the cracks, she said.

"It often seems like there's no funding available to help us," Newton said. "If we need treatment for sexual abuse or domestic violence or alcohol treatment, there's no one to help us. It's kind of like these problems never get resolved."

Newton also thinks that Indian communities must take responsibility for ending the cycle of abuse and alcohol.

"A lot of us are in denial about what has happened," Newton said. "We cover up things or say nothing's wrong in our families. We don't make our families accountable for the wrongs we may have done.

"My sense is we need to validate what has happened, grieve and then move on. Until you can do that, you just don't resolve anything."