Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country -- more than 26,000 cases in 2019 alone according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
In Indian Country, the issue is even worse. Indigenous people face some of the highest rates of domestic violence nationwide. A 2016 Department of Justice report estimates that almost 3 million Native adults have experienced some form of abuse, whether it is physical, sexual or psychological.
So, before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling McGirt v. Oklahoma affirmed the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation, the tribe's Family Violence Prevention program was already pretty busy.
COVID-19 left many housebound, which increased the uptick in those struggling with domestic violence.
Shannon Buchanan is a coordinator and victims advocate for the program.
“I can tell you this year to date, we have served 226 clients within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation,” she said. “We have seen a huge increase in calls that are coming from our lighthorse police.”
Issued in July, the 5-4 McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling stated the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation in eastern Oklahoma was never dissolved, which affects criminal jurisdiction including domestic violence cases.
Under the Major Crimes Act, states do not have jurisdiction over felonies committed on Indian land by or against citizens of federally recognized tribes. Instead, depending on the specifics of the case, that authority falls to either the federal government or the tribe.
For example, someone accused of sexual assault would go through the federal court system or the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s court system if at least one person involved is a citizen of a federally recognized tribe.
For domestic violence cases like the ones Buchanan deals with, that's a step in the right direction.
“That is a significant piece of our ability to exercise our sovereignty, to hold offenders accountable,” acting Muscogee (Creek) Nation Secretary of Community and Human Services Shawn Partridge said. “And so, of course, anything that could potentially limit that, I think is concerning for all of us, especially with the work that we do.”
Gayla Stewart is a victim's specialist who works in the U.S. Attorney's office in the Northern District of Oklahoma. With a change in criminal jurisdiction, her office is seeing an exponential increase in cases.
“With this McGirt case, our caseload has changed quite a bit and so has many violent crimes that we're seeing that we didn't see. We saw some, but not in this volume,” said Stewart.
Stewart’s job is to help victims navigate the federal system and explain the charges, and sometimes, it's a challenge. She and staff at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Family Violence Prevention Program say they've talked to a number victims and their families who don't know what to expect, or worse.
Sometimes victims get confusing or wrong information about how their case will be handled as it transitions away from the state’s jurisdiction.
“You have people that are working in a DA’s office or you have law enforcement telling victims when they're calling and checking on their cases that, ‘Yeah, they filed a motion and they're going to be released based on this ruling.' I mean, it's scary,” Buchanan said. “They're scaring victims, and that's not how it works.”
Instead, the transition between jurisdictions looks like this. When a motion is filed to dismiss in state court because of McGirt, the offender doesn’t just get out of jail. Stewart and the U.S. Attorney's office charge the offender in federal court.
Right now, the U.S. Attorney's office for the Northern District of Oklahoma is handling 28 domestic violence cases and 27 major crimes, which includes rape. The number of cases has increased dramatically since the McGirt ruling. Since August, their office has prosecuted 114 cases. In a typical year, they would only prosecute 230 for the entire year.
To be able to handle the increase, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the U.S. Attorney's Office need more staff and more resources, which means they need more money.
In late August, the Department of Justice partnered with the tribes and committed $8 million for domestic violence programs which means four more prosecutors will be headed to the Northern District and the Eastern Districts of Oklahoma.
Additionally, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation received nearly $550,000 to bolster their court system and hire four more prosecutors specifically to handle domestic violence cases and The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). They also received $2 million for their lighthorse police.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Press Secretary Jason Salsman says the additional money is just a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.
"Our systems are just as good as the state agency, are just as good as the federal agency if we have the same footing and the same resources and the same funding as those other places,” Salsman said. “The moment needs to be met with appropriate funding, appropriate actions."
Even with the added cost and the extra caseload, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores says he's determined to prosecute every case that comes through his office, even if it means trying a case twice because of a change in jurisdiction.
Shores is also a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. Despite the calls from some in Oklahoma's congressional delegation to return these cases to the state of Oklahoma for prosecution, he doesn't think legislation is necessary to clear up any jurisdictional issues.
“I hear a lot of people talk about a legislative fix, and I actually really dislike that term because ‘fix’ suggests that something is broken, and I actually don't think anything is broken,” Shores said.
As of mid-October, Muscogee (Creek) Nation is still going through its budgeting process for 2021. Until that process is complete, it can not increase funding for its court systems beyond what was appropriated in 2020. They're hopeful that more money will be made available to further bolster their law enforcement and judicial system.
Even without the increase, the tribe says it is determined to get justice for victims of domestic violence.
“It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility that nobody takes lightly,” Partridge said.
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