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Partners in Justice: BIA Victim Specialists—Transcript

WENDY L. BREMNER, BLACKFEET, BLACKFEET VICTIM SPECIALIST, BIA: We have a beautiful culture.

MICHELLE FARR: It's a very rich culture. We have powwows, we have sun dances. So there's a lot of tradition, but there's a lot of new energy as well.

VALAURA IMUS, HOPI, PHOENIZ AREA VICTIM SPECIALIST, BIA: All the tribes, they're very different—their culture, their tradition, and their language.

WENDY BREMNER: Historically, our people treated each other with respect and we had a very healthy society.

LANISHA BELL, MISSISSIPPI CHOCTAW, VICTIM ASSISTANCE NATIONAL COORDINATOR, BIA: When someone's victimized, it affects the whole community, and I think that's what's unique to Indian Country because we're all closely knit.

RENEE BOURQUE, MUSCOGEE CREEK, PINE RIDGE VICTIM SPECIALIST, BIA: The people are very giving of themselves. They're a very proud people, but it can be a tough place to be, because there is a lot of crime.

VALAURA IMUS: Our ability to believe victims is powerful. If another person can provide the resources, the support, they have a higher likelihood of being able to come out of a victimization.

WENDY BREMNER: It gives me a lot of hope that we come from a very healthy, strong people, and we can definitely get back to that. So that's what drives me to do what I do. Because of the high levels of trauma and violence that we see, it's really important to have another Indian person beside you in Indian communities.

ROBYN SIMMONS, MESCALERO APACHE, MESCALERO VICTIM SPECIALIST, BIA: I want justice to be served and I want our victims to have services.

LANISHA BELL: The Victim Assistance Program was created in 2008 to respond to victims, to ensure that their rights are afforded to them, as well as provide essential services. A huge part of why the BIA Victim Assistance Program was established was to fill a gap between the federal and the tribal system. It's well-documented, the rates of violence that occurs within our own tribal communities. There is a great need for comprehensive services to really identify what those gaps are, and that's what we've tried to do at BIA. We're uniquely designed to really respect the sovereignty of tribes and to really provide responses in the tribal as well as the federal system.

WENDY BREMNER: We interact with the tribal system, the federal system, all of the social service agencies, and the victims themselves and their families to try to bring somebody to healing, but also to bring change that helps heal our whole community. We're all Native. Many of us come from our own communities.

LANISHA BELL: It's important to have someone that is from that community and that can understand the political, the familial implications coming forward and reporting—all of the ties that come in when you're addressing crime in your own community, in your own family.

MICHELLE FARR, PAIUTE, WIND RIVER VICTIM SPECIALIST, BIA: Thank you again, Desiree, for coming into the office... We maintain a relationship with the victim. It really begins right at the time of their trauma, and it can end years later. Our role as a Victim Specialist can run from being available at a hospital, to working with family members and friends, to acting as a liaison for law enforcement. My priority is the victim, and law enforcement is an absolute partner in that.

VALAURA IMUS: We work with tribal communities to service crime victims regardless of what kind of crime it is.

ROBYN SIMMONS: My job as a Victim Specialist is to make sure, number one, the victims are safe.

MICHELLE FARR: Some of our core services are providing crisis intervention, emotional support, providing referrals to overcome the trauma that they're going through.

LANISHA BELL: Tribes have community-based programs for ongoing counseling, shelter services, support groups, legal advocacy. Victim Specialists would refer victims to those programs.

VALAURA IMUS: We provide the guidance, the information, the resources, whether it's mental health counseling or traditional healing.

LANISHA BELL: Our Victim Specialists are criminal justice system-based advocates. It's important to differentiate between a system-based specialist and a community-based advocate. The key distinction is confidentiality. When our Victim Specialists are working alongside law enforcement, they're required to notify the victims that information will be shared with our prosecution team.

LANISHA BELL: Also, there are things that the community-based program can provide that we may not be able to provide, so our BIA Victim Specialists would refer victims to those community-based programs. Our victims are in need of many, many, many resources, so it's important for us to partner and meet the needs that exist for victims in Indian Country.

ROBYN SIMMONS: There are so many challenges in Indian Country.

MICHELLE FARR: Being a Victim Specialist, providing services throughout a large mass of land with a large population can be very challenging.

WENDY BREMNER: All of our systems are over-tasked. They're underfunded, and it's really difficult to meet the challenges of our population because of that.

ROBYN SIMMONS: Most tribes don't have a shelter on the reservations or certified SANE nurses. Victims have to travel 45 miles away to have an exam done.

VALAURA IMUS: The tribes that I serve are 3-hour drives. My shortest drive is 2 hours.

WENDY BREMNER: Another challenge is the victims usually have nothing to fall back on. A lot of times they don't have very much family support.

RENEE BOURQUE: I work real close with the shelter in Rapid. It's just that a lot of people do not want to leave their home, they don't want to leave their family. And they shouldn't have to.

VALAURA IMUS: So it's up to us to be creative, to call local area services. We find alternative ways.

ROBYN SIMMONS: This is Robyn. How are you? I work a lot with other programs that are able to assist and able to have the funding to help in certain areas. I had a situation where a family lost their home. Someone burned their home down. And one of the local businesses in Ruidoso, they offered some gift cards for them to get the basic necessities until they were able to get established and to rebuild.

LANISHA BELL: Trauma in Indian Country is high. We're looking at issues compounded with historical trauma. We have beautiful traditions that we come from, but we also have these compounded issues that we need to address so that this cycle doesn't continue.

ROBYN SIMMONS: Indian people, just in general, having historical trauma, and then a lot of our victims and families that have been through a traumatic experience or event, not knowing how to deal with it in a healthy way.

WENDY BREMNER: They need to be able to work through those layers of trauma. So, that's where I feel we have an important role, also, as Victim Specialists is to really educate our community about that.

RENEE BOURQUE: Just being accessible to people has made a huge difference in overcoming some of the barriers of building relationships.

ROBYN SIMMONS: Once I'm able to interact with community members, I have that opportunity to explain, "This is my role. I'm here for you." And so prior, the community members had the attitude of, "I'm not going to report it because nothing will get done." And now they are seeing a difference.

MICHELLE FARR: The referrals can come in through law enforcement, through the hospitals, through the schools, through other victims.

ROBYN SIMMONS: I've had community members just come into the office, and they're like, "Can we speak with Robyn? A family member said that you helped somebody out, so can you help me?" And I'm, like, "Absolutely." We have a lot more tribes that are constantly inquiring, "How can we get a Victim Specialist?," because they hear the success stories of the communities that we are providing services.

LANISHA BELL: We have 567 federally recognized tribes that have unique political structures, unique customs, unique traditions, unique sacred practices and rituals. The vision forward would be that every tribe have the opportunity to develop programs and services to meet the needs of their crime victims.

WENDY BREMNER: These are the most traumatic moments of our people's lives. We have to make sure that they have a voice, that they have somebody standing by them.

RENEE BOURQUE: What we do matters. Usually it's victims who remind me that I've made a difference today.

MICHELLE FARR: I know that the need is being fulfilled in terms of being able to help people who didn't have services before.

ROBYN SIMMONS: I want to make sure that our victims are being treated fairly and they get the services that they're entitled to receive as victims.