Thursday, July 18, 2019


New health center to help crime victims in northern Minnesota
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Officials from North Country Regional Hospital in Bemidji were joined Wednesday by Red Lake tribal leaders and others for a ribbon cutting ceremony to dedicate the new Family Advocacy Center. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Bemidji will be home to a first-of-its-kind health care center. There was a dedication ceremony Wednesday for a Family Advocacy Center at North Country Regional Hospital. When it opens later this summer, it will serve family violence victims in a 16-county region in northwest Minnesota. The center will focus on the crimes most likely to affect families -- child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. It's the first such facility in the country developed by a tribal government and non-tribal organizations.

Bemidji, Minn. — Tribal leaders from the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe joined officials from the hospital, local law enforcement and the U.S. attorney's office to cut the ribbon for a facility organizers say was long overdue.

U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger says the idea to team up with the Red Lake tribe came out of a brainstorming session a year and a half ago. Heffelfinger's office is in charge of prosecuting family violence crimes on the reservation. He says the old system wasn't working. Red Lake didn't have the facilities or the resources to deal with victims.

Heffelfinger says the goal of the center is to significantly reduce family violence not only on Red Lake, but throughout northwest Minnesota.

"Family violence, more than any other type of crime, has a generational and an individual cycle of violence about it, in which today's victims, if not healed, become tomorrow's abusers," said Heffelfinger.

The Family Advocacy Center will be open to everyone, regardless of race. Domestic violence accounts for more than one-quarter of all violent crime in the state. Crime records show that in northern Minnesota, there were nearly 1,100 cases of child abuse and close to 900 cases of rape reported in 2002.

Heffelfinger says Native Americans are victimized by violent crime at a rate two and a half times the national average. Native American children are twice as likely to be victims of abuse or neglect.

He says the new center will develop programs that are culturally sensitive to the region's Native American communities. Eighty-five percent of the state's Native population lives in northern Minnesota.

"If we want to truly eliminate these types of crimes, and that is the goal, we're going to have to intervene with victims in a way that will allow them to recover from their victimization as rapidly as possible," Heffelfinger said. "And that is what this process does."

The role of the Family Advocacy Center will be to provide for the immediate medical and mental health needs of family violence victims. The focus will be on the victim's health, not on gathering criminal evidence. Supporters say that approach empowers victims and helps break the cycle of violence.

Jim Hanko, president of North Country Health Services, says the goal is to lessen victims' trauma during their initial visit, and to make mental health and social service referrals that will help the healing process.

"One of the real benefits of the center will be follow-on support to the victims, to address their mental health and emotional needs," said Hanko, "because what they've gone through is horrendous and they need all the help they can get."

Red Lake tribal leaders say, in the past, family violence victims often had to travel to the Twin Cities to get appropriate help and make statements to law enforcement. Tribal Secretary Judy Roy says that extra effort sometimes made victims reluctant to follow through.

"Our wish to have our children treated as close to home as possible will be coming true, that victims of abuse will not have to be further traumatized by a long trip to the Cities to repeat their story and go through exams, but they will have a chance to receive that service here," said Roy.

Supporters say if the Family Advocacy Center is successful, it could be used as a model for similar centers in rural areas across the country. The center in Bemidji is funded by government, corporate and private donations. It's set to open this summer.