Howard Center investigation examines child sexual abuse cases in Indian Country

Child sexual abuse is a major problem in Indian Country, yet federal government data suggests hundreds of cases may be falling through the cracks, according to a new project from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The FBI and U.S. attorneys are responsible for investigating and prosecuting major crimes in Indian Country, such as child sexual abuse. But a Howard Center analysis of Justice Department data shows that the FBI has “closed administratively” more than 1,900 criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in Indian Country since 2011. Such cases are not referred to federal prosecutors because, the FBI says, they fail to meet evidentiary or statutory requirements. Child sex abuse investigations accounted for about 30% of all major crimes on reservations closed by the FBI each year — more than any other type of crime, including murders and assaults, the Howard Center found.

In addition, an analysis of Justice Department case management data showed that U.S. attorneys pursued charges less than half the time in child sexual abuse cases from Indian Country. That’s about one-third less often than they filed charges in other types of crimes. Only a small percentage of child sexual abuse defendants from Indian Country went to trial, the analysis showed. Most cases ended in plea bargains, which typically involve lesser sentences.

There is little good data on the extent of child sexual abuse among Indigenous communities, but some researchers estimate it could be as high as 1 in every 2 children.

Dr. Renée Ornelas, a veteran child abuse pediatric specialist working in the Navajo Nation — the largest and most populous tribe in the United States — said practically every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse.

“They’re just little victims everywhere,” Ornelas said.

Combating child sexual abuse is difficult anywhere. The crime is often committed by a relative or family friend, increasing the pressure on the victim to stay silent. Physical evidence is rare, and conviction can hinge on the testimony of someone barely old enough to describe what happened. But in Indian Country the problem is complicated by what one former U.S. attorney calls “a jurisdictional thicket” of tribal and federal authority spread across wide swaths of territory, making communication and coordination difficult.

"There are a lot more child sexual abuse cases than are being reported,” said child psychologist Dolores Subia BigFoot, who directs the Native American Programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “There's a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being investigated, and there's a lot of child sexual abuse cases that are not being prosecuted.”

Rylee Kirk, one of the Master of Arts in Investigative Journalism students who worked on the project, titled “little victims everywhere,” said the skills she gained doing this investigation will serve her well as a professional reporter.

“My time at the Howard Center has given me the ability to enter the journalism world with amazing skills, strong confidence and the knowledge that my work is important,” said Kirk, who grew up in Georgia. “By bringing this issue to light, it is my hope there can be work done to ensure that child sexual abuse cases are not slipping through the cracks.”

The Howard Center at the Cronkite School and another at the University of Maryland were established in 2019 under grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism and train the next generation of investigative reporters. The centers honor the legacy of Roy W. Howard, former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.

Maud Beelman, executive editor of the Cronkite School’s Howard Center, said she believes this investigation has the potential to change lives: “By shining a light on a problem that few knew existed or wanted to talk about, I hope the students’ reporting will lead to justice for the most vulnerable among us.”

“We are indebted to the families who were willing to share their stories,” added Howard Center Executive Producer Lauren Mucciolo. “The resilience and strength they exhibit is deeply inspiring.”