Empowering Youth on the Crow Nation

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By Julie Fischer
Juvenile Justice Specialist, State of Montana

The Crow Nation, also called the Apsaalooké or Biiluuke, is nestled in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains on nearly 2.3 million acres in south central Montana. Over 12,000 Crow tribal members call the Crow Reservation home, and 85% speak Crow as their first language.

The Crow communities of Lodge Grass, Pryor, and Hardin are in Big Horn County, the poorest county in Montana. Students on the Crow Reservation have the highest high school dropout rate among the seven reservations in Montana.1 Poor academic performance and negative attitudes toward school, aggravated by poverty and the breakdown of traditional family values, contribute to juvenile delinquency, substance use, and mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In 2012, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Department made 167 juvenile arrests on the Crow Indian Reservation; during the same time frame, the Crow Tribal Prosecutor’s Office managed nearly 364 juvenile cases involving new and reoffenders.2

The Youth Empowerment Coalition began in July 2012 with a Title II formula grant through the Montana Board of Crime Control. Project Director Valerie Falls Down is the Adolescent/Addictions Counselor for the Crow Tribal Juvenile Court system. Based on the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum, the primary goal of the Youth Empowerment Coalition is to reduce juvenile delinquency and improve prosocial behaviors among tribal youth. Tailored to American Indian norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes, the curriculum is designed to build self-esteem; identify emotions and stress; increase communication and problem-solving skills; and recognize and eliminate self-destructive behavior, including substance abuse, through a cognitive-behavioral therapy or treatment approach. Hands-on, interactive lessons challenge students to build self-esteem; identify self-destructive feelings, emotions, and stress; identify communication issues; recognize self-destructive behavior and eliminate it; recognize suicidal ideation; and make plans for a healthy future.

Valerie delivers her program to students in Hardin, Lodge Grass, Pryor, Ashland, and Wyola from her office in Crow Agency, covering approximately 370 miles each week. During the first year of her program, 31 youth participated in the Youth Empowerment Coalition; 10 of the youth had substance abuse-related charges. During the last few months of the 2012-13 school year, Crow Indian Reservation schools reported an increase in crisis incident referrals. Valerie quickly set up a crisis response strategizing meeting with school staff that continued through the school year so that all schools could be involved in developing a strategic plan. Valerie continued to collaborate with community resource programs, using a team approach, in order to address the increase in crisis calls.

Participation in the Youth Empowerment Coalition grew throughout the school year, and the referrals from area schools increased. The project has been acknowledged by the Crow Tribal Court System and the Big Horn County-City Court System. A crisis response protocol has been developed as a result of the high rate of suicides and suicide attempts. Collaboration among agencies continues to develop, and training in the areas of alcohol and drug prevention, suicide prevention, and bullying prevention have been provided to the participating agencies.

During the first year of the Youth Empowerment Coalition, 11 Memoranda of Understanding were signed with area schools and agencies to increase the organizational capacity of the program, and 51 youth participated in program activities. At least one suicide attempt has been interrupted. Nearly 60 percent of program youth changed their behaviors toward substance use; recidivism dropped to less than 10 percent; 30 percent of program youth improved their prosocial behaviors, including family relationships; half of the program youth became more socially competent; and over 80 percent of the families were satisfied with the program.

The Youth Empowerment Coalition on the Crow Reservation is reconnecting Crow youth with American Indian values and teaching important skills in the areas of communication, problem solving, stress management, anger regulation, and goal setting. As the program continues to grow, participating youth will continue to develop the life skills necessary to address their daily challenges.

Julie Fischer is the Juvenile Justice Specialist for the State of Montana, with experience in grant management and program evaluation and a passion for keeping kids and communities safe. She has worked for the Montana Board of Crime Control since 2007, first as the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws (EUDL) State Coordinator and then as its Juvenile Justice Specialist. She represents the Board of Crime Control on several state-level coalitions and task forces, including the Interagency Coordinating Council for Prevention (ICC), which works across state agencies to braid funding streams for the purpose of addressing prevention and intervention issues at the state level. She also provides training and technical assistance to Montana’s tribal nations and coordinates training efforts between tribal communities and state agencies.

1 Jim Eshleman. “Fighting for the Future: Shedding Light on State of Education on the Crow Reservation.” Big Horn County News. Vol. 107 No. 9. March 1, 2012.

2 Data provided by Bureau of Indian Affairs Chief of Police Toni Larvie and Crow Tribal Prosecutors Robert Lafountain and Roger Renville. March 2013.