COMMENTARY: We must not forget the innocent.

by Jul 22, 2020OPINIONS





The monster that is COVID-19 consumes our thoughts and actions today. The battle rages daily. People are modifying their lives in ways many would have thought impossible as late as last Christmas. We look at each other with suspicion at a simple cough or sneeze. We weigh the benefit of traveling outside our homes versus the possibility of infection. We hide our faces behind masks and forego the simple signs of affection and community like handshakes and hugs to further potentially protect ourselves. We permit governmental mandates, in some cases encourage them, giving up freedoms that we would never consider giving up were we not seeing forecasts of death, both physical and economic.

What we must not do is let this pandemic take our minds away from the serious issues that were plaguing us before this strain of coronavirus showed up. We are still battling an epidemic of drug over use and abuse that has not let up even in the face of worldwide infection. Our latest Cherokee Indian Police Department arrest report provides a window into the issue, riddled with drug and drug-related charges upon members of the Cherokee community.

Another area of concern for our citizens is domestic violence. Pundits on national media indicate that domestic violence may be experiencing increases due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders that were instituted throughout the country, both Indian and U.S.

In an April 2020 paper on bioethics by John Neetu, Sara Casey, Giselle Carino, and Terry McGovern, research points to a direct correlation between isolation measures and domestic violence. “Organizations that work with domestic violence survivors report that measures such as quarantine and physical distancing increase tension within households. As the authors of the Bioethics paper note. ‘Confinement in physical spaces, along with economic and health shocks, have increased stress levels.’ As a result, women have experienced more physical violence, as well as compounded stress and mental health consequences. In addition to physical violence, women are being subjected to mental anguish and heightened coercion and control tactics, all of which harm their well-being.”

Tracking the actual increases of domestic violence in real time is tricky. Most surveys of this type lag several months while data is correlated, analyzed, and summarized. But all indications globally, nationally, and locally are that domestic violence, including elder abuse will become increasingly prevalent in the era of COVID-19.

The realities of domestic violence are horrifying – bruises, swollen faces, broken bones, blood, and death. Every family member in an abuser’s household is impacted. Women being grabbed, shoved, pushed, slapped, and hit. Approximately 325,000 pregnant women in America are victims of domestic violence each year. Men are not immune. The CDC reports that one in seven men will experience domestic violence by an intimate partner this year. Children are experiencing the same physical violence and are watching as one of their parents beats on the other. Nationally, each year child protective authorities get over three million referrals. Two children out of every 100,000 die. Demeaning and vulgar language are poured out on innocent ears. Entire families living in fear and pain. I want us to get a good clear mental picture of the gruesomeness of domestic violence before we get too caught up in the statistics. Sometimes, when we look at numbers, that is all we see. We do not want to see the hurt and feel the pain. Looking into the face of a battered and bloody woman or child is too much for some of us to bear. We want to look away. And because we look away, the violence continues, and people continue to suffer.

I asked our EBCI Public Health and Human Services Division to provide some insight into the condition of our community regarding domestic violence and elder abuse.

Sunshine Parker, Human Services director, responded, “We do track elder abuse and domestic violence statistics separately.  There is some crossover in that elder abuse can include domestic violence and vice versa.  In FY19, the Walkingstick Shelter assisted with 84 DVPO’s.  Thus far in FY20, they have assisted with 56, this is with the caveat that we may be missing some data that was lost during the cyber-attack. In relation to elder abuse, the Family Safety Program Adult Protective Services Unit received 143 reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation in FY19.  In December 2019, a new set of elder abuse laws passed that changed some of the definitions related to elder abuse for criminal prosecution and increased the penalties related to being convicted of elder abuse. These laws also created a mutual reporting mandate between Family Safety and the Cherokee Indian Police Department, and it created the 50E which is protective order specifically for victims of elder abuse.  So far in FY20, APS has received 146 reports of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.”

The stories were already heartbreaking enough. Pre-coronavirus, we heard stories, even from the seats of Tribal Council, of visiting nursing facilities and seeing the elderly sitting alone. Reaching out to strangers for a moment of companionship and intimacy that they rarely received. Many either had no family or family that, for whatever reason simply do not have time or take time to spend with those in nursing facilities. But the stories get even more tragic, there are aging family members in homes who are being exploited, having supplement checks and resources like food and medicine stripped away from them, much of the time by their own relatives. In some cases, elders are being subjected to physical violence because of insensitivity or greed.

Now with COVID-19, we have the added agony for both elders and their families of limited contact or isolation in nursing facilities. Out of necessity to protect physical health and well-being, thousands of elders are seeing loved ones only through plexiglass and hearing them through a speakerphone. Even caregivers are required to limit contact and contact time with elders for fear of infection.

According to the Center for Disease Control, nationally, elder abuse is largely unreported. They conjecture that elders may be fearful of their attacker, blame themselves as the cause of the attacks, may not know what to do, or are simply ashamed of what is happening to them. In a clinical environment, underreporting was attributed to “poor recognition of the problem, lack of understanding of reporting methods and requirements, and concerns about physician-patient confidentiality.”

The CDC goes on to say that they estimate that elder abuse occurs in between 3 percent and 10 percent of the elder population.

146 reports of abuse, neglect, or exploitation. If each report represents a tribal elder, then that is almost one percent of our total Tribal population. And even one incident, one elder, is too many. Regarding both domestic violence and elder abuse (which is another form of domestic violence), the statistics Sunshine provided point to projected increases in both this year over 2019.

Some of that increase may be attributed to coronavirus response; some may be from the onslaught of drug over use and abuse. Hopefully, it is not an indicator of a deeper evil in our community and the country. With so many crisis situations in the country and our community, it is easy for long standing issues to get lost or covered up. We cannot allow that to happen when it comes to violence, whether mental or physical, against our loved ones in the community. If they are strong enough to come forward, we must be there for them, support them, and stand with them until they are free from domestic violence. If they cannot stand for themselves, we must seek to identify it and make sure that the proper authorities may investigate their situation and step in on their behalf. We have a duty to each other as community members, as members of humanity, to end their suffering. If you see violence of any kind, your first response needs to be to call 911 and report it immediately.

Public Health and Human Services provides the following information:

The Domestic Violence Program is available 24/7 by calling 828 359 6830.

To make a report of child or adult maltreatment you can call the Family Safety Program at 828 359 1520 during regular business hours.  After hours, on weekends, or holidays you can call 828 497 4131 and ask for the on call social worker.

For information related to child welfare you can go to

For elder abuse

For domestic violence