The Aftermath: "I Want My Children To See Me Differently"
Native communities are disproportionately affected by high rates of domestic violence, while state-led interventions in these communities are often costly and ineffective.
In rural California, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services says the solutions require a cultural shift, that entire communities must take responsibility for ending violence against women.
Now, new programs on the ancestral lands of the Yurok Tribe are trying to do that.
Lori Nesbitt trudges up a hill overlooking the ocean, her back to the mouth of the Klamath River below. She works with people experiencing domestic violence and it’s been a long day.
“Today didn’t go as planned,” she says. “The women didn’t show up.”
These women were supposed to show up for Nesbitt’s domestic violence intervention program. The idea is for perpetrators to listen to each other and learn what triggers abusive behavior. But when nobody shows up to the group, Nesbitt says, it’s contagious.
Contagious because the program is peer-driven. There’s a women’s group run by Nesbitt and a men’s group run by a male Yurok tribal probation officer. Most people in the groups were ordered to attend by a judge, in the hopes that they’ll buy in to treatment, rather than merely accepting punishment.
But Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti says that’s a big shift in perspective.
“I stopped asking defendants, ‘Why did you do that?’” she says. “Many people don't understand why they get in to a behavior that they themselves do not like.”
Abinanti is head of the reservation’s court system, which runs the intervention program. She says one way to understand the high rate of domestic violence among her people is to look at history.
“You have intergenerational trauma, where you have a history that is not pleasant between us and other cultures,” she explains. “Where you have massacres, where you had people carried off to boarding schools and where you have a tremendous amount of poverty. All those things are breeding grounds for behaviors that are not acceptable in community.”
Community is a word Abinanti uses a lot. She says the whole approach of her court is based on restoring relationships.
“And that’s hugely different than creating consequences for behavior in the hopes that somehow that deters the behavior.”
So, if punishment doesn’t work, what will?
“You create access to programming that does not make them have to be found guilty first,” Abinanti says. “It makes them have to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this. I want my children to see me differently. I want my grandchildren to see me differently.’”
The intervention program is one way the Yurok Tribe is trying to cultivate that mindset throughout a community grown accustomed to domestic violence.
But if people don’t buy in to the program, it doesn’t work. And Vicky Bates says, there’s already too much to worry about.
“People just can’t survive,” Bates says. “And to get their medical needs taken care of and to eat, they’re stuck. If they don’t have a ride or a friend with a ride, then they’re stuck.”
Bates gives a lot of rides. She’s a domestic violence crisis worker through the Tribe’s justice center.
“They’re a hard people to help” she says, “Because they don’t have vehicles, they don’t have phone services. How can you help them? So, we get them a bag of emergency supplies together, and hopefully they have that if they have to run down the road.”
Bates says she spends a lot of time in the car taking clients to medical or court appointments, or to the nearest grocery store, a 45-mile round trip from the reservation. Then, at the end of each day, she’s got more people to take care of.
“So, when I leave at five o’clock, or six o’clock, or whatever hour I leave, sometimes it’s later than that, sometimes it’s been up to nine or ten o’clock. I have to make sure I shrug my shoulders off and go home to my family.”
Bates is a mother, grandmother and a single parent.
At her house on the reservation, kids bounce around as she talks about the ways domestic violence has affected her.
She says she wants the kids to hear about her life, which hasn’t been easy. She was married to an abusive spouse by 16. Now, she’s in her 50s and wants to teach her kids an openness that her parents never had.
“I don’t know, it was just too busy, too many kids,” she recalls. “There was always something going on: family trauma, deaths, kids falling apart, and we were just kind of breezing through all of that and not dealing with hey, let’s plan for tomorrow. It was more like, uh, let’s try and save today, let’s try and help whoever’s broken today and move on."
Bates’ voice quavers and she starts to blink back tears.
“I don’t know why that made me emotional, probably because she walked in.”
One of Vicki’s granddaughters strides into the room.
“I’m Keepuen and it means “winter” in Yurok”.
Keepuen’s 10. She say she wants to be a singer when she’s older.
“I’ve been working on my voice,” she proudly says.
When offered a microphone, she goes for it.
“I want to shout!” Keepuen sings. “I want to scream ‘til the words dry out. So put it in all of the papers, I’m not afraid, they can read all about it, read all about it… ohhhohhhohhhhohhhh ohhhh.”
Her voice carries through the house, another home where domestic violence has left behind scars, but not silence.
Del Norte Triplicate writer David Greider contributed to this report, which was supported by a California Health Journalism Fellowship from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.