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White Earth grant will focus on reducing domestic violence

White Earth Tribal officials are cracking down on domestic violence and sexual assault cases involving Native Americans.

Funding for a new domestic violence and sexual assault investigator and a new women's shelter have been secured.

A $700,000 federal grant will pay for the investigator position that has been filled by Jeremy Cossette, who started last fall and since the beginning of the year, has worked on 36 sexual assault and seven domestic violence cases on the reservation.

"We are seeing a bigger increase in sexual assault being reported on the White Earth Reservation," he said.

American Indians are twice as likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Officials say the rising numbers of cases mean more and more incidents are now being reported to the authorities, either by the victims themselves or through advocacy programs.

Assistant White Earth Human Services Director Ben Bement said before breaking the silence with education efforts, victims were scared to come forward.

"It was such a hidden topic, people are often shameful, feeling embarrassed, uncomfortable," he said.

Investigators often receive cases from the three sheriff's departments -- Becker, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties -- that lie within the White Earth Reservation, said Police Chief Randy Goodwin.

Advocacy programs like the White Earth Tribal DOVE (Down On Violence Everyday) also refer cases to the domestic violence investigation unit.

Cossette said that he opens at least two sexual assault cases per week; all require lengthy investigations and many involve victims or suspects who don't live on the reservation.

"Sexual assault cases take a very long time to complete," he said. "They are very strenuous."

Domestic violence cases also take time, meanwhile the victims are forced to live with the abuser or a relative where they can easily be found, Bement said.

Statistics show that women will break up and get back into the relationship seven times before moving on, he added, which is why there is a need for a women's shelter right on the reservation.

"In order for the abuse to stop, there needs to be separation. The person needs to get out of that environment," Bement said.

The nearest women's shelters are located in Bemidji or Fargo and most victims don't have the resources to travel long distances.

The groundbreaking for the new $1 million women's shelter will be in June with a tentative completion date in the winter or spring of 2011, Bement said.

"Hopefully it will cut down on the reoccurrences that may happen in a domestic violence situation," he added.