Tahlequah Daily Press

May 1, 2013

Rape victim’s story shows how VAWA can help

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Victims of rape often experience a sense of shame, but when that feeling is compounded by first responders, the damage can be irreversible.

When Cherokee citizen Jessica Harkreader was sexually assaulted several years ago, she decided not to press charges against her assailants, because of the way she was treated by law enforcement when she made her report.

Harkreader, who was attacked in 2009, said she was looking forward to celebrating a “girls’ night out” with her friends. That night ended with her being drugged, kidnapped and raped. Her first memory after the rape was waking up in the assailant’s truck.

“They were inside a local restaurant with their friends,” Harkreader said in a training video for the Institute of Native Justice. “It scares me to think further than that, because if these two men had the arrogance and the audacity to drug, kidnap, and rape a girl, what was next on their agenda? Why was I still in their truck? I woke up not knowing what to do, and the police were called.

“I should have felt relief, but instead I felt like an annoyance because I was treated as one by the authorities who first responded,” said Harkreader. “The cops were more concerned abut jurisdiction than what had really happened. They even argued in front of me.”

Harkreader said both city and county law enforcement officers responded, and they argued about who had legal authority over the case.

“When they had determined it was the county cops, the city cops were relieved,” said Harkreader. “They were out of there, quick. So, as a rape victim, when you’re treated as an annoyance, it doesn’t feel good. You don’t feel believed. It was almost as bad as being raped again.”

Harkreader said she asked the police to contact the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service and was told “no.”

“I know the marshals,” said Harkreader. “I was more comfortable with them than the strangers. For whatever reason, I was shut down and told no. I feel like tribal police would have treated me with respect because I am one of them; I am Cherokee. I feel like if they had come, this whole legal action would have turned out differently. I would have had a different perspective about what happened to me from the very beginning. Had they treated me with some human dignity, maybe the men who did this to me would be in jail right now. I would have had the confidence to go after them.”

Pam Moore, director of the Institute for Native Justice, said American Indian victims in Indian Country must be able to report exactly where and by whom they were assaulted so law enforcement can figure out who will take jurisdiction for the case.

“Victims of other races are not asked these types of questions,” said Moore. “Knowing this information is all but impossible when, as was the case with Jessica, the victim has been drugged.”

Congress recently passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which includes significant provisions addressing tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence.

Under the new law, tribes will be able to exercise their sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order in Indian country.

VAWA 2013 also clarifies tribes’ sovereign power to issue and enforce civil protection orders against Indians and non-Indians. Although tribes can issue and enforce civil protection orders now, they cannot criminally prosecute non-Indian abusers until at least March 7, 2015.

Moore said the passage and funding of VAWA is crucial to a number of local agencies.

“VAWA affects the quality of life and safety for more than 200,000 victims of domestic and sexual violence each year, many of whom are family friends and neighbors,” said Moore. “Local efforts include the work of Help-In-Crisis, the Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University and the District Attorney’s Office.”

Moore said these entities work together to address, respond and resolve crimes of domestic and sexual violence, and that HIC alone provides emergency shelter to more than 500 families each year.

To address and combat sexual assault and domestic violence among American Indian victims, the Cherokee Nation recently instituted the Charles L. Head One Fire Against Violence Task Force and Victim Services office, 215 S. Muskogee Ave. The tribe held an open house  Tuesday.

“As chief of the Cherokee Nation, I am dedicated to protecting the rights of our people, especially the most vulnerable among us. Our women and children deserve the opportunity to live a safe and healthy life,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “When we raise public awareness and better educate our communities, we will help stem the violence, save lives and build a brighter future for the Cherokee Nation.”

Since taking office, Baker’s administration has made combating domestic violence a top priority. The tribe, through the Attorney General’s office, implements a Violence Against Women Act grant through the U.S. Department of Justice to help victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking with victim advocacy, transitional housing and civil legal assistance programs. The tribe also works with batterers in an intervention program. The Victim Services office coordinates services for abuse and mental health victims with protective orders, job placement, emergency housing and other resource referrals.

“We created the Charles L. Head One Fire Against Violence Victims Services Office Center to give our people the tools they need to leave chaotic, violent and abusive situations,” Baker said Tuesday. “For First Lady Sherry Baker and me, this issue is deeply personal, just as it was for our former secretary of state, the late Charles Head.”

Help-In-Crisis Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Coordinator Sandra Dearborn attended Tuesday’s open house, and said she is pleased to have one more avenue of resources to provide to victims.

“As you know, we have a partnership with CN Behavioral Health and the American Indian Women’s Health Resource Center,” said Dearborn. “This collaboration of their meeting the needs they see from the tribal perspective in conjunction with services offered locally, statewide and nationally for victims of crime is essential. It’s helpful to have so many resources in one place. The collaborative efforts of all parties serves the needs of our community as a whole.”