California Juvenile Diversion Effort Targets Native American Youth

New state funding is earmarked for Native American youth, a group that has lacked youth development opportunities for youth and mental health resources. Photo courtesy of 5th Direction.

A new $37.3 million juvenile diversion fund signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in his 2018-2019 budget represents the first-ever state program specifically designed to help keep at-risk young people out of the justice system and prevent incarceration.

The fund includes $1 million specifically earmarked for Native American youth in the state, a group that has a disproportionate rate of arrest and has struggled to access mental health resources.

The new funding will go toward “trauma-informed diversion programs for Native American youth.” This grant allows tribes to develop youth programs to help address these needs on their reservations and rancherias. Several Native American leaders in parts of Northern California are hoping these programs will address a widespread need for mentoring and youth development.

In some areas of the state, a legacy of oppression against Native communities and high rates of alcohol and substance use have led to serious health and mental health challenges for youth.

For example, in 2016, the Yurok Tribe — located in several Northern California counties — declared a “state of emergency” in response to seven suicides over a 16-month period, a number that includes several young people.

In December 2017,  California state legislators Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D) and Brian Dahle (R) convened a hearing on Native American youth issues at the Mooretown Rancheria in Butte County. This forum gave Native youth and community leaders a chance to share their perspectives on the issues they are facing with parents, tribal leaders and elected officials.

“The last five years we’ve got hit hard with everything, hit hard with tragedies. A lot of it is suicide and accidents,” said Shannon Albers, a 19-year-old Yurok man living on the Hoopa Reservation in Humboldt County. “The adults are going through stuff, too … but the youth, they’re getting hit hard. Death, drugs and alcohol. It makes everyone feel like they have to fend for themselves.”

That testimony by Albers and other Native youth had a powerful impact on the state legislators, according to several advocates.

“It was the youth testimony that really hit assembly members which made them want to do something,” said Virginia Hedrick, director of policy and planning at the Sacramento-based California Consortium for Urban Indian Health. “So how can we support more youth like that?”

This first step might include some way of acknowledging a dark history about how the state has intervened in the lives of Native American families. For instance, in the year 1900, there were only 15,000 Native Americans who had survived the California genocide. Approximately 180,000 Native youth in the U.S. were forced to go to government boarding schools, a program which lasted for more than 80 years.

Most of these children were kept at these facilities until they were young adults, which caused them to miss out on experiencing a functional and traditional family life. Today, regaining what was lost is part of this dilemma. Building resilient communities now means dealing with the legacy of reservations and rancherias in the state, as well as high rates of poverty and unemployment.

On the Hoopa Reservation where Albers lives, the median family income is a little more than $25,000 a year with a 17 percent unemployment rate and a 42 percent poverty rate, numbers well above state averages.

“The issues that our youth are facing are complex and multi-generational. The issues of their parents and their grandparents. I think when we take a look at the family as a whole unit, I think that’s where we can find some deep healing, because within our culture … to be a well-rounded human being you need that village,” said Priscella Kinney, a Paiute Shoshone who lives and works on the Yurok Reservation for True North, a community-based organization effort in Humboldt County.

There are currently some resources for Native youth in Northern California. For example, the Sacramento Indian Health Center has a youth ambassador program that empowers youth between ages 13 and 24, to be the voice for Native youth in the Sacramento region. There is also the federal Circles of Care grant that helps tribes build a plan to support Native youth and their families through local health centers and job-readiness training provided by the California Indian Manpower Consortium.

That is still not enough for Native youth, said Hedrick. “There is a great need for a place for Native youth to go.”

Albers agrees, and would like to see California help provide well-resourced centers for youth who may be struggling with basic necessities.

“A lot of kids go couch to couch,” he said. “Everything starts at home and some kids don’t want to go home. They’d rather be anywhere, but home. That’s why they need a youth center, they need somewhere to go, something to do, so they don’t have to go home. Something to eat. If we had a place that had a kitchen in it and maybe a washer and dryer, where they can wash their clothes, somewhere to be able to feel safe.”

As California tribes think of how they can best use the new state resources, they must find a way to use culturally rooted practices while also addressing the root causes of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

“It doesn’t make sense for the solution to non-Indian problems to only rely on Indian-specific solutions. Certainly, it’s a mix of both,” Hedrick said. “The program should be cultural-specific and it should be done by Indian people, but the need for licensed clinical social workers remains.”

Another big part of the solution is making sure Native youth have access to role models and mentorship opportunities. Chance Edward Carpenter IV is one person many Native youth can look up to. A Hoopa tribal member, as well as Yurok, Karuk, Wyndot and North Carolina Cherokee, Carpenter is a college access academic advisor with Humboldt State University.

Carpenter said many Native youth can benefit from hearing about how others have navigated the transition into higher education. “I think we’re coming up on a generation that is pressed to choose between culture and professional development and it’s tough that we can’t have both,” Carpenter said. “There’s a huge mentorship piece that goes with that.”

Calvin Hedrick, cultural director of the Sacramento-based nonprofit 5th Direction, has been promoting cultural strength within Native communities for years. Many alumni from the organization’s Young Native Men’s group and Red Storm Basketball program have entered and graduated from college, worked for their tribes, overcome trauma and become successful in the world. Some even come back to 5th Direction to work with the same youth programs.

“One of the things I hear a lot from youth who have attempted suicide is that they felt like they had no purpose in the world,” Hedrick said. “This makes me stop and think: the very first story that you should’ve really learned as a child is about where you came from and your responsibility in this world. If you’ve been hearing that your whole life, then you would never go through life thinking you didn’t have a purpose. I try to convince these youth to write their own stories, create their own opportunities” to break this cycle.

In order for that to happen, a great deal of work needs to happen in the coming years.

“Everyone is kind of just letting [youth] free-fall and it’s time to start taking responsibility for them, standing up for them and fighting for them, cause that’s what they need,” said Albers, who at age 19 is right in the middle of the fight for his generation. “They need to feel safe. The youth just need mentors, they need people to look up to … people who they want to be someday or who will help them to be themselves.”

Jack Kohler is a Hoopa Tribal member and the executive director of On Native Ground.  

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Susan Abram
About Susan Abram 22 Articles
Susan Abram is a freelance writer who previously covered public health and L.A. County government for the Los Angeles Daily News. You can find her on Twitter at @SAbramLA.