Weaving a Braid of Support: Connecting Native Victims of Abuse with Tribal-Based Support Services

Calls to the StrongHearts Native Helpline confirm what Native advocates have known all along – Native victims of domestic violence prefer culturally-appropriate resources from their community

With more than 3,200 calls now reported, the StrongHearts Native Helpline (1-844-7NATIVE), an anonymous and confidential domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, is fulfilling its purpose serving as the first culturally-appropriate, national helpline for Indian country.

Based on recent information gathered from randomly selected caller stories, at least 80 percent of Native American callers facing intimate partner violence (IPV) preferred to be connected with a Tribal-based and/or culturally-appropriate direct service provider rather than with their non-Native counterparts.

Since the launch of services in March 2017, the StrongHearts Native Helpline has offered callers peer advocacy, emotional support, crisis intervention, and connection to community-based resources based on location and services needed. Referrals for callers include Tribal shelters, Native legal services, sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), and domestic violence advocates and programs connected to Tribal communities, among many other critical services.

“One of the first questions that many of our callers ask is whether our advocates are Native, and when they hear that the answer is yes, it opens the floodgates,” said Lori Jump (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa), Assistant Director of the StrongHearts Native Helpline. “We hear how thankful they are not to have to explain who they are and how being Native impacts their victimization and survivorship.”

With a strong understanding of the importance of Tribal cultures, family, and traditions, StrongHearts advocates offer callers culturally-appropriate support, crisis intervention, assistance with safety planning and a connection to Tribal resources as they navigate the difficult barriers to justice and safety. StrongHearts advocates are available daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST. Callers reaching out after hours can access the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) by selecting option 1.

In March 2019, StrongHearts increased its available hours to better serve victim-survivors of IPV, concerned family members and friends, ‘helper’ programs seeking assistance for clients or patients, as well as people questioning their own abusive behavior. Advocates assist anyone who calls the helpline, which is available free of charge.

Moving the Needle

Since October 1, 2018, StrongHearts call volume increased by 414% compared to the same time in the previous year. This increase is demonstrative of an unmet need for culturally-responsive services for Native victims and survivors of abuse.

“In our outreach to Tribal communities and at national events and trainings, we heard loud and clear from so many of our relatives how desperately their communities need a shelter or domestic violence program,” said Mallory Black (Diné), StrongHearts Communications Manager. “Many people tell us how they wish StrongHearts was around when they needed it and how grateful they are that a helpline now exists to provide a safe, supportive space for our Native people.”

In March 2019, the StrongHearts Native Helpline held an open house in collaboration with the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and the National Domestic Violence Hotline (The Hotline) in Eagan, Minnesota, to mark the helpline’s second anniversary and new office headquarters. Pictures left to right: Tara Azure, NIWRC Training and Resource Specialist; Katie Ray-Jones, Chief Executive Office of the Hotline; Lori Jump, StrongHearts Assistant Director; Lucy Simpson, NIWRC Executive Director; Shawndell Dawson, Director of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, ACF/HHS; and Gwendolyn Packard, NIWRC Training & Technical Assistance Specialist.

The StrongHearts team continues to forge partnerships with Tribal coalitions and Native organizations, such as the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. During October which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, IHS and StrongHearts collaborated to provide a webinar about StrongHearts services to the IHS Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative (DVPI) grantees. DVPI is a congressionally mandated, nationally coordinated grant and federal award program for Tribes, tribal organizations, Urban Indian organizations, and federal facilities providing violence prevention and treatment services. IHS also published a blog post on its website sharing StrongHearts as a resource and provided a link to the helpline’s website and phone number.

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, StrongHearts partnered with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (NPAIHB) in April 2019 to facilitate a webinar on what domestic violence looks like, the signs of relationship abuse, and an overview of services available as a resource for service providers and community members. In June 2019, StrongHearts will continue to work with NPAIHB to help facilitate a domestic violence training for Tribal service providers and a youth-specific dating violence workshop for Tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest region.

This year, StrongHearts is also collaborating on the Tribal Resource Tool (TRT) to provide expertise in populating its directory of services for victims of crime. The Office for Victims of Crime of the U.S. Department of Justice funded the National Center for Victims of Crime to create the TRT, a web-based resource mapping tool that provides a listing of all services available for Native survivors of crime and abuse and identifies resource gaps. The StrongHearts-TRT collaboration provides an administrative assistant position that will simultaneously provide support to both the TRT directory and the StrongHearts referral database. StrongHearts advocates utilize the helpline’s referral database to connect callers with Tribally-run resources that can serve their needs in a culturally rooted way.

The Steps Ahead

Data gathered from IPV victim-survivors reaching out to the helpline over the past two years has helped illustrate the great need for culturally-relevant advocacy, education and support services. According to StrongHearts’ data from its first 25 months* of operations, the severity of those 547 callers’ experiences is telling:

  • At least three out of four (77 percent) IPV victim-survivor callers who identified as Native American or Alaska Native reported being enrolled members of a federally-recognized or state-recognized tribe;
  • More than four out of five (85 percent) reported emotional abuse; and
  • About one-third (33 percent) had experienced financial abuse.
  • Based on 17 random excerpts of caller experiences in April 2019, at least four out of five Native victim survivors (80 percent) had left or were in the process of leaving their abuser and needed additional support.

Funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, which administers the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, StrongHearts works to support the safety and healing of Native people by upholding the sovereignty of Native nations in protecting their people. Whenever possible, helpline advocates refer callers to resources connected with their Tribal communities and culture.

FVPSA is the primary federal funding stream dedicated to supporting lifesaving services and related programs for victims of domestic violence and their children. While FVPSA legislation is currently up for reauthorization, policymakers could enact legislation that includes an amendment for the permanent inclusion of the StrongHearts Native Helpline this fall.

Native advocates, including organizational efforts by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, have made significant steps forward to provide Tribes with the recognition, jurisdiction and resources to protect their communities under FVPSA with each reauthorization. These advances help to support Native victim-survivors of violence in Tribal communities by breaking down barriers to justice and safety.

“Our work at StrongHearts has revealed what we have always known but struggled to prove – there is a serious resource disparity in Indian country,” Jump said. “There are huge swaths of land where no resources exist for our people. In many cases, our advocates are left to refer our callers to non-Native programs, and while we are thankful for those programs, they do not always understand the specific barriers our people face. StrongHearts is a critical link supporting the safety and healing of our people and sovereignty of our communities.”

*Based on data gathered from calls to the StrongHearts Native Helpline reported March 6, 2017 through April 30, 2019, unless otherwise specified.