LAKE PLACID — This year’s Hope Changes Everything Conference brought together more than 230 people from various disciplines devoted to combating child abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
“It’s exciting, it’s validating, being able to bring education and knowledge and to highlight the work these people are doing,” said Richelle Gregory, executive director of the Clinton County District Attorney’s Child Advocacy Center and 2017 Outstanding Child Advocate of the Year.
The event took place over two days at the Conference Center at Lake Placid and featured 17 speakers who shared their stories and best practices for tackling and understanding cases involving children.
“I’m so grateful and thankful for the people that go out and do this every day with the hope of a better world and maybe making children’s lives a little better,” Gregory said.
The conference was presented by the Clinton County Child Advocacy Center in collaboration with DA’s offices, social services departments and satellite centers in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.
As the Advocacy Center has grown into a regional operation, Clinton County DA Andrew Wylie’s office has continued to seek and obtain grant funding to allow for events like the conference, he told the Press-Republican.
Working on child abuse and exploitation cases “is one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement and social services,” he said.
“We’re trying to give caseworkers, law enforcement and prosecutors insight into what are the best practices.”
Among the presentations given at the conference was “Indigenous Persons: Human Trafficking,” given by St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Beverly Cook, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Horsman and Clarissa Chailand, deputy commissioner of the tribe’s Social Services Division.
There are more than 560 different tribes in the United States, each with different languages and cultures, Cook said.
The Mohawks are part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a confederation of nations that came together in peace and whose territory once stretched to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In the wake of European contact, the nations’ territories have been reduced to reservations, and some tribal members were relocated or fled as villages were being burned.
“The Canadian border was arbitrarily placed,” Cook said. “They chose not to pay attention to the way we’ve always lived.”
As a result, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has three different governments: a traditional one, which oversees ceremonies, and the Canadian and New York state tribal governments, which are elected systems.
Indigenous people have faced many adversities, including a shrinking land base, lifestyle changes and wars that pitted them against each other, Cook said.
“It’s a lot of adjustment, a lot of trauma.”
In a study that surveyed more than 17,300 people on adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect, most participants were white, 10 percent were Hispanic and 10 percent were black.
One of the doctors who worked on the study spoke in Akwesasne recently, Cook said, and told her the few natives surveyed were the outliers.
The native participants had the highest scores, responding “yes” to having experienced those traumas at a 10 to 15 percent higher rate than their non-native counterparts.
One of the biggest issues Cook feels could have been addressed is whether native participants’ family members were in boarding schools.
The schools were set up for native children in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Some parents were convinced they would offer better lives for their kids by sending them there, where they could eat three square meals a day, learn a skill and earn an education.
“The whole idea behind it was assimilation into white society,” Cook said.
Children weren’t allowed to speak their native languages or talk about their culture, she said, and punishments included sexual and physical abuse, along with neglect.
People who returned to their native communities didn’t know how to communicate or express their feelings properly, Cook said, and this trauma was “jammed into a couple generations of our people and handed down epigenetically,” Cook said.
According to whatisepigenetics.com, epigenetics is “the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence.”
“The genes aren’t changed; it’s the way they respond to stimulus or environmental impact that changes,” Cook said.
Essentially, the effects of serious trauma can be passed on through generations, meaning you can’t look solely at an individual’s experiences when it comes to trauma.
“You have to look at the population. Look at where we come from, not just the immediate family,” the chief said.
“Take indigenous people and think about what everyone has been through — parents being killed, children being slaughtered in front of parents.”
She said it will take about three more generations to undo the effects of that trauma.
Tribal members acting out in the form of alcoholism, drug addiction and having multiple sexual partners attests to these traumatic experiences, Cook said
“On top of that, we have a casino, which as a tribal leader, I must say gives us the money we need to fund our programs and department of social services.
“We also have the international border we have to deal with, most of which is unmanned,” she continued.
“We have a great law enforcement department, focused on making relationships with our (assistant U.S. attorney), Homeland Security, Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, trying to close the gap because if human trafficking could happen anywhere,” it’s on the reservation, Cook said.
Chailand gave an overview of how the tribe has implemented its Safe Harbour: NY program, which aims “to create a more effective and efficient response to youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation or trafficking, or who are vulnerable to it,” according to the State Office for Children and Family Services website.
When the tribe received the funding four years ago, they brought together a team that aimed to spread awareness and education about the dangers of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“A lot of (native) children leave,” Chailand said. “They were getting jobs in Potsdam and commuting there because they didn’t want to live there.
“But now they’re in New York City, Toronto, California — huge cities where trafficking is taking place.”
They created a youth advisory committee that meets at Salmon River School, asking the students how they want to reach out to the community.
The kids came up with ideas for some commercials and have also designed and put up billboards to raise awareness.
Social Services has also shown films on trafficking and plan to bring a play called “Facing Traffic” to the school later this fall.
“We had a breakthrough and trained a lot of front staff in the casino at sex trafficking,” Chailand added.
Horsman’s roles include indigenous nations liaison and human trafficking coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York.
“There’s a special relationship between the federal government and the nations,” she said.
“We spend a lot of time supporting law enforcement there, not supplanting them. We have concurrent jurisdiction on the reservation.”
If a case involves a native, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reaches out to that person’s nation, especially if it has a police department, Horsman said.
She showed a map from the Polaris Project that marked the location of potential human trafficking cases and another that showed the locations of indigenous nations in the United States.
The two were effectively superimposed on each other, demonstrating tribal vulnerability to trafficking.
Once a week, Horsman has to drive out to the nations and work on special projects there.
“You see the power of these women, and the people who work for them are dedicated to their culture and maintaining a healthy environment.”
Child protection agencies, child advocacy centers and non-governmental organizations have organically grown human trafficking investigation regions in New York state, Horsman said.
With law enforcement, they use a multi-disciplinary approach to combat this activity.
Trafficking cases are hard to take on, since they take a lot of resources and time and rely on management buy-in, Horsman continued.
While some states’ laws require third-party control for sexual exploitation of children to be identified as sex trafficking, federal law does not.
“Every case is assessed on its own merit and best choice for and of the victim,” Horsman said.
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