BILLINGS — Special response teams to handle sexual assaults are being established on six Montana reservations in a bid to curb high rates of rape and other abuses against American Indians, U.S. Justice Department officials announced Wednesday.
The first-of-its kind pilot program will set up the joint federal-tribal teams to counsel victims and pursue arrests and courtroom justice for perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Federal statistics indicate Indian and Alaska Native women are raped at a higher rate than any other race, with one out of every three Indian women raped in their lifetimes.
Authorities say such crimes often go unreported on reservations, where victims living in close-knit communities fear reprisal or rejection if the abuse were to be reported.
But Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West said the sexual assault response teams could give victims new confidence in the criminal justice system.
West joined U.S. Attorney for Montana Mike Cotter and tribal leaders from eastern Montana's Crow Indian Reservation Wednesday in Crow Agency to announce the initiative.
The teams will be made up of federal and tribal prosecutors, victim advocates, health care providers, law enforcement and others.
Crow Vice-Chairman Calvin Coolidge Jefferson said he hoped that with the new program, "our mothers and sisters will have access to justice and to recovery."
"I want to encourage victims, survivors and their family members to come forward, to offer support for each other in the pursuit of justice and healing," Jefferson said.
Cotter said he would encourage the response teams to be proactive in hopes of intervening before sexual assaults occur.
The program will be set up over the next six months on the Crow, Blackfeet, Rocky Boy's, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
The response teams will meet monthly to discuss sexual assaults and craft strategies to address them.
It's similar to programs that have been set up to help children involved in sexual or physical abuse.
The idea is to provide culturally appropriate care to victims and improve coordination between law enforcement agencies that would pursue criminal charges.