Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Place To Go: Safe Havens for Tribal Youth

"Nowhere to go, nothing to do," is the eternal refrain of bored children everywhere, but for youth growing up on remote reservations, the problem leads to more serious consequences. Without sober role models, healthy activities, and positive peer groups, youth drift towards options that include drinking, drug use, gangs, criminal activity and too often, suicide. In Indian Country, we're all too aware of the trouble our children can get into. Even the government noticed, and in 1999 the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention began providing grants to tribes who wanted to institute Tribal Youth Programs (TYP) that offered Native youth an after-school alternative.

From Alaska to Oklahoma, concerned adults created programs to help redirect their community's youth in a positive direction. Some tribes created programs that served the most endangered children, like the Wind River tribe's TYP, which grew out of their juvenile probation program. Other programs, like the Mescalero Apache's, involved all kids, as well as their parents, and even incorporated the TYP into the schools. Most tribes created programs that encouraged pride in their Native culture, as well as imparting important health messages and engaging participants in traditional activities like hunting, fishing, and canoeing (starting with building the canoes!). Many programs also incorporated Native language lessons, community service projects, community food production, and homework tutoring.

A decade into the TYP experiment, participating tribes reported stunning successes. At its peak, the TYP cost taxpayers about $25 million dollars a year to transform the lives of thousands of at-risk Native American youth. Then came the budget cuts. Then came the sequester. Between the two, the TYP budget has been slashed to $9.5 million, less than half of its previous funding level. Communities  are looking for ways to keep the programs running, but with similar hits to housing, health care, education, mental health, juvenile justice and other programs affecting Native youth, it's hard to know which fire to put out first.

Some, including the National Congress of American Indians, have argued that the cuts violate treaty and trust agreements to the tribes. Although this fiscal year just started, we're already seeing devastating impacts in public safety and in basic quality of life for our children. Congress will be back in session to work on passing a budget this month. It's up to us to put the pressure on to make sure that our kids have a fighting chance, or at least a place to go and something to do.