Native youth living on reservations sometimes straddle several legal worlds, encountering “complex jurisdictional systems” if they become involved in the juvenile justice system, according to Stephanie Autumn, Codirector of OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Resource Center (TYRC). Depending on the reasons for their involvement, youth may be subject to state, federal, or Tribal government laws—and sometimes to all three.
“More often than not,” these youth find themselves separated from their families and Tribal communities, placed in either the state or federal justice system, Ms. Autumn said. Typically, neither system is designed to provide culturally sensitive services that address the unique needs of Native youth.
Indigenous youth benefit when their Tribes and the states they live in communicate and work together, facilitating partnerships as each comes to understand and appreciate the policies and practices of the other. OJJDP promotes and supports such partnerships, as demonstrated by ongoing collaborations between the TYRC and another OJJDP-funded entity, the Center for Coordinated Assistance to States (CCAS). Both provide training and technical assistance, supporting organizations that serve young people and strive to reduce the justice system’s impact on them, their families, and their communities. The TYRC serves OJJDP Tribal grantees and programs, while CCAS primarily serves designated state agencies and state advisory groups, supporting their implementation of and compliance with the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act.
The interactions and collaboration between OJJDP, CCAS, and TYRC remind Ms. Autumn of the Native teachings behind the braiding of sweetgrass (pictured), a medicinal plant.
"It provides healing, a clearing out of past things that no longer serve a purpose," she said. "The strands themselves cannot serve the same purpose as when the sweetgrass strands are braided together. I believe our intention is the same as the braiding of sweetgrass."
Over the last 3 years, the TYRC-CCAS collaboration has included four presentations for national audiences that highlighted the benefits of Tribal-state partnerships for youth in the juvenile justice system. The 2021 Coalition for Juvenile Justice virtual conference included two: Fostering Tribal, State, and Federal Collaborations, and Reducing and Reimagining Responses for Native Youth in Confinement Through Prevention, Intervention, and Alternatives to Detention. The TYRC and CCAS also presented Tribal State Relations To Support Juvenile Justice System Improvements, a panel discussion at the 2021 Tribal Youth Virtual National Conference, and Enhancing Tribal Nation and State Agency Relationships to Promote Access to and Use of Title II Funding, a session at the 2020 State Relations and Assistance Division Training Conference.
“By sharing training opportunities, facilitating opportunities to connect, and intentionally strengthening our relationship, we are modeling positive Tribal-state relationships, being good stewards of federal resources, and supporting those we serve to enhance their impact.”
—Cassy Blakely, American Institutes for Research
“When state systems are connected to their Tribal neighbors, they are better educated on the historical trauma and aware of the strengths and needs of tribal communities,” explained Cassy Blakely, Deputy Director of Training and Technical Assistance at American Institutes for Research, which operates CCAS. “This allows states to be more respectful neighbors rather than imposing Western solutions on Tribal communities” and is an opportunity for them to learn about Tribes’ restorative, community-connected interventions, she said.
Individual youth benefit when states invest in building equitable relationships with Tribes, Ms. Autumn and Ms. Blakely agreed. If a state alerts a Tribe to a youth member’s juvenile court proceeding, for example, the Tribe may be able to step in and assess the youth’s physical, mental, and spiritual needs from a Native perspective. Maintaining Tribal connections while detained can also help to alleviate a youth’s fears and isolation, helping to reduce the likelihood of additional trauma.
As the TYRC and CCAS have worked together to promote stronger Tribal-state relationships, their staffs have engaged in candid conversations with each other and with OJJDP, exploring shared experiences and exchanging resources and approaches, as they discuss the needs of systems-involved youth.
“We discuss how to promote and ensure the inclusion of Tribes on state advisory groups, and how to create safe spaces for Tribal and community leaders to discuss the historical challenges experienced” in past partnerships between Tribal, state, and federal justice systems, Ms. Autumn said. Ms. Blakely agreed. “While joint training sessions spread knowledge farther, the open conversations have equal impact because they shine light on practical challenges facing programs serving Tribal young people,” she said.
Several entities provide training and technical assistance to Tribal grantees. OJJDP sponsors the Tribal Youth Resource Center and The Resource Basket; the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration funds the National Native Children's Trauma Center.