Restorative Justice: Can It Help?

Dec 1, 2015

When I began reporting on domestic violence in Northern California, Crescent City was my home, and the heart of a crisis in the state’s most northwesterly corner.

While Native people comprise 9 percent of the general population in Del Norte County, Native families tends to make up more than 30 percent of domestic violence cases.

The calls came in every day through a police scanner on my desk. 

“Children crying in the street on 9th and D. Domestic disturbance reported.” 

A few hours later one day: “She was pulled out by her hair and thrown down” on Starfish Way. 

Later on, the sheriff’s office dispatcher was connected to another address, where “Somebody called, but nobody spoke.” 

Since joining JPR’s newsroom earlier this year, I no longer hear the nightmarish snippets crackle across a scanner daily, but I am still listening to and reporting on the stories behind them.

The facts are grim: people in Del Norte County call the police to report domestic violence at a rate far exceeding the state’s average. This has been typical of the region for the past two decades, but the calls skyrocketed in the last five years.

In 2014, the rate of calls for help was seven times higher than the state average, and two and a half times the rate of similarly rural California counties.

I’ve spent the last few months interviewing people on the frontlines of domestic violence response and prevention in rural Northern California, thanks to a collaboration between JPR and the Del Norte Triplicate with support from the California Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The reporting examines who is calling for help, who answers those calls, what happens to families after a report, why Native American families are disproportionately affected, and how community interventions can initiate a healing process, or not.  

I quickly learned that there is no “normal” domestic violence case, that stereotyping is a luxury of the ignorant.

“The number one stereotype I encounter is —”So, why did she stay? She must like it.” A lot of women give up because they are in trauma and they are being re-traumatized on a consistent basis,” said Shelagh Carrick. She’s an advocate at Harrington House in Crescent City, the only emergency shelter in all 1,000 rugged square miles of Del Norte County.

Carrick explained that after reporting abuse, many families must navigate complex systems to get legal protection and meet basic needs, while they often remain dependent on a batterer for income and transportation. This type of narrative was echoed by Vicky Bates, a coordinator for victims of domestic violence working through the Yurok Tribe.  

“Most of the people I work with are not choosing to leave the partner,” said Bates. “They are a hard people to help because they don’t have vehicles. They don’t have phone services. They don’t have electricity at half the Reservation upriver.”

While Native people comprise 9 percent of the general population in Del Norte County, Native families tends to make up more than 30 percent of domestic violence cases.

The explanation for this is rooted in history, said Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti.

“You’re looking at a situation where you have inter-generational trauma, you have history that is not pleasant between us and other cultures. Where you had massacres and all the indentured slaves coming out of the north. You had people carried off to boarding schools and you have tremendous amounts of poverty. All those things are breeding grounds for behaviors not acceptable in community... Once you create a breeding ground, that’s what you have.  And then you have to go back and try to address those issues and resolve them,” said Abinanti.

She heads up the recently expanded Yurok Tribal Justice Center in Klamath, situated near Del Norte County’s southern border with Humboldt County.

“We are trying to resolve problems in a way that will allow us to all live in a small community and go forward. And that’s hugely different than just creating consequences for behavior in the hopes that that deters the behavior,” she said.

Known as restorative justice, this model is being applied to stem the tide of domestic violence among Native American families. We learn a lot more about the struggles and strides on that front in stories that aired on JPR and appeared in print in the Del Norte Triplicate in December.

In case you missed them, visit ijpr.org and type domestic violence in the search bar.

Emily Cureton is the producer and engineer of the Jefferson Exchange, heard on JPR’s News & Information Service weekdays, and online at ijpr.org.