Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai is partnering with the State of Alaska to develop the state’s first joint-jurisdiction therapeutic court. Proponents say it’s a step towards better support for community members — both Native and non-Native — who are struggling with substance abuse and the legal system.
The state and tribe signed documents to form the court this fall, but it’s been in the works for years, and the issues it addresses came even earlier.
Kenaitze Indian Tribe elder and Tribal Council member, Liisia Blizzard said colonization resulted in trauma. For instance, tribal members once practiced their culture freely through hunting and fishing on the land. But with statehood came restrictions.
“After statehood came, all hunting and fishing was very highly regulated,” Blizzard said. “I think that that had a lot to do with why there is an alcohol problem and there has been for so many years. Because men were no longer able to hunt and fish and practice their cultural lifestyle the way they used to. And so there was a big loss in this community.”
Blizzard said some tribal members turned to newly available substances. Some of her earliest community memories are of substance abuse.
“To this day it is difficult to talk about because there was so much alcoholism here and a lot of domestic violence and suicide,” Blizzard said.
Blizzard said families were torn apart as courts sent tribal children to out-of-state foster homes where they lost touch with their families, culture and language.
The tribe started its court in the mid-80’s when Blizzard said elders described what was happening with children as leaves on a tree being blown away.
Since then, in an effort to keep families together and culturally connected, the court has handled civil CINA cases or child in need of aid, custody disputes, guardianship and conservatorship for elders and vulnerable adults, some domestic violence petitions as well as marriages and divorces.
The new court will add criminal misdemeanors. Blizzard said one of its first challenges will be one that has blindsided the community: heroin.
“In this community, heroin is the drug of choice because it is cheap. And so it is destroying families,” Blizzard said.
Kimberley Sweet, Chief Judge for the Kenaitze tribal court, said the situation is having a serious impact on families.
“99 percent of our children and native aid cases come in and there is a drug and alcohol component to either the neglect or the abuse that has taken place and the state court is seeing the same things,” Sweet said. “We were having people in our CINA cases here that had a simultaneous criminal case going on over in the state court.”
Alaska Superior Court Judge Anna Moran, who will partner with tribal judge Sweet during proceedings, said the state and tribe hope the court can turn things around.
“It affects the mothers who are having their children taken away, it is affecting the fathers who are being incarcerated, it has a ripple effect throughout the community and the ripple effect is significant,” Moran said. “For every child who has their mother or father taken away and put in jail, that child learns bad habits and gets in the system or is in foster care and then that ripples out to their children. We really want to try to stop that.”
For Kenaitze Indian Tribe, it’s a step toward greater authority in the state’s criminal justice system. And it’s a first-time partnership for the state of Alaska – other tribal courts operate independently. The tribe’s courtroom is located in a new building on the Kenaitze Tribes’ wellness campus in Old Town Kenai.
Reconnecting Alaska Native people with cultural values is part of the court’s purpose and the layout of the courtroom reflects this idea. There is a big table in the middle of the room. The judges are not separate from the participants. They all sit around the table together.
To participate, people will have to opt in. If participants fail out of the therapeutic court program, they will go back to state criminal court to face the full weight of state law. Moran says the new joint-jurisdiction court is meant to be a model for other communities.
“The model of the therapeutic court is not for the faint-hearted,” Moran said. “But the reward on the other end is that you are substance abuse free and maybe your charges will be dismissed or you’ll have a lesser offense that you’re pleading to or maybe even have them dismissed altogether.”
Kenaitze Elder Liisia Blizzard said she doesn’t want to see history repeat itself. The new court will focus on healing, not punishment, and she thinks that can help.
“This therapeutic court, I believe will give people a choice,” Blizzard said. “If they are arrested and go to jail for consuming alcohol or drugs they have a choice of either going to jail or going to the therapeutic court and make a big change in their life.”
Blizzard said it’s a step toward healing for her tribe and for the entire community.
“This therapeutic court I think will really make a big difference in peoples’ lives,” Blizzard said.
The court has already accepted a participant and will take additional cases in the new year.