This is the first in a two-part special report on how courts and other institutions deal with traumatized children, especially Native American youth. You can read part two here.
FARGO — Brandi Azure could feel the love fade from her family on days her parents drank.
What happened on one of those joyless days left a deep scar on her memory, ever-present among a constellation of scars from a childhood spent in poverty with parents stuck in the haze of addiction.
It was a Saturday gathering at her uncle's house in West Fargo where the adults were boozing. An argument erupted, and her uncle started choking her aunt.
Brandi's dad, seeing his sister being attacked, grabbed a knife and stabbed Brandi's uncle in the torso repeatedly, enough to put him in serious condition and require surgery.
Brandi, just 6 years old, saw the violence unfold.
"That was the first traumatic experience I ever had in my life," she said.
Sadly, more trauma was in store for Brandi, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who grew up in Fargo. She's now 26 years old and knows the traumatic experiences she suffered throughout her rocky upbringing, with stints in foster care, mental health facilities and juvenile court, are not unusual among American Indian youth.
In 2014, the Justice Department reported that 22 percent of native children experience post-traumatic stress - the same rate as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trauma is an issue that spills into any place that deals with kids, such as schools and social service agencies. Yet one institution that experts believe has a great deal of power to help traumatized youth is the court system. And judges, as leaders in the courtroom and community, are uniquely positioned to foster healing among the kids and families that come before them, said Alicia Summers, program director for research and evaluation at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, a nonprofit group in Nevada.
Judges "have an opportunity to ensure that the correct questions are being asked, that families are being sent to the correct services, that someone is addressing their underlying trauma," Summers said, adding that such an approach to traumatic stress can help prevent kids from re-entering the system and end cycles of violence in families.
Tribal and state court officials in North Dakota say they're aware that trauma is often present in cases of child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency and foster care placement. But getting kids and families the treatment they need - treatment that can often dramatically reduce their reactions to traumatic stress - sometimes proves difficult, especially on reservations with scant resources.
'On their own'
Trauma is a broad term that can include physical or sexual abuse, a serious car crash, a natural disaster, severe neglect, the death of a loved one or witnessing domestic violence. Native youth are often victims of multiple forms of trauma, and they're also faced with what's known as historical trauma, the cumulative emotional and psychological wounds inflicted across generations of native people.
A growing body of research shows that trauma can derail a child's normal brain development, increasing the chance of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. Some studies have tied childhood trauma to adult health and behavioral problems like cancer, emphysema, addiction and attempted suicide.
There's even emerging research that suggests atrocities committed across a population, such as American Indians or Jews, caused stress that may have altered the expression of genes, negatively affecting the health of subsequent generations.
In western North Dakota, the Fort Berthold Reservation is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes: the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. Just over 4,000 people live on the 980,000-acre reservation which straddles the Missouri River.
From 2011 to 2014, Chase Iron Eyes was a judge in Fort Berthold District Court where he handled all sorts of cases, including ones involving traumatized native youth. He'd often hear delinquency cases of kids who were skipping class or being disruptive in school. It was behavior that he linked to their home life.
"Sometimes there's partying all night at the house, and nobody's cooking for the kids," he said. "The kids are getting up on their own, having to get their little brothers and sisters ready for school as well."
Iron Eyes, a Democrat who's now running for U.S. Senate, said that as a judge, he could order mental health evaluations that helped him identify trauma, but the difficulty came in finding treatment for kids in an overwhelmed, cash-strapped system.
"A lot of time that support was not adequate just because of the caseload," he said. "Sometimes there's just too many kids."
Next year, North Dakota legislators will consider a bill to create a four-year pilot program with at least one tribe, giving juveniles in tribal court access to the same services available to those in the state court system, including treatment to address traumatic stress.
The program's long-term aim would be to reduce the incarceration rate for American Indians, who are overrepresented in North Dakota's prisons. Native people made up 5.5 percent of the state's population last year but accounted for 20 percent of the 1,796 inmates in the prison system in June, according to state prison data and U.S. Census estimates.
While the cost of the program is unknown, it's expected to face a tough road in a tightfisted legislative session dealing with major revenue shortfalls.
Mary Seaworth, a current Fort Berthold judge, said she's in favor of the bill or any plan that would promote cooperation between state and tribal courts. She believes both systems have a responsibility to all youth whether they live on a reservation or not.
"There should be less boundaries when it comes to kids and resources," she said.
'Sick of it'
Brandi Azure's uncle survived the stabbing. Her dad was convicted of aggravated assault, and he served 16 months behind bars. When he got out, his felony record made it hard to find work and a place to live. Her mother, who dealt with drug problems as well as alcoholism, wasn't in the picture.
Brandi's family ended up homeless and moved in with relatives. Sometimes close to a dozen people were crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.
"A lot of time there wasn't enough to eat, you know, sleeping on the floor and stuff," she said. "I just got sick of it, seeing my family drink all the time."
Hoping for a better life, Brandi decided at the age of 14 that she wanted to enter the foster care system. She appeared in front of a state judicial referee, who, in North Dakota, fills the role of a judge in cases of foster care placement, juvenile delinquency and child protection.
She explained to the referee her family's unstable life, their homelessness, her dad's drinking. And with that, the referee put her in foster care.
"It was just in, out, done," she said, describing the referee's attitude as nonchalant. "He just wanted the case over with. That's how it felt."
Of the two male judicial referees in Fargo at the time, one has died and the other declined to comment for this story.
Brandi said none of the officials assigned to her case ever asked whether she needed help with the trauma in her past. She wishes they had because the experiences of her uncle's stabbing and her dad's imprisonment were still festering.
"I was holding it in for so many years," she said. "I grew up in a family where we didn't cry, we didn't show emotion."
In the years since Brandi appeared in court, the local foster care, child protection and juvenile court systems have started assessing cases with trauma in mind. And court staff, including judges and judicial referees, have received training on the effects of trauma, said Heather Traynor of the state court administrator's office.
Where kids would sometimes get generic mental health treatment, they now receive care to specifically address their responses to trauma, said Pat Podoll, family service division manager at Cass County Social Services.
When screening kids and families, Cass County Social Services and state juvenile court, which handles delinquency cases, now use questionnaires that include trauma-related questions, and both institutions are moving toward implementing trauma-specific checklists to quickly identify problems, officials said.
"It's such a savings to the taxpayer for us to treat childhood trauma early as opposed to waiting until we have people committing, you know, felonies in their 20s and 30s," said Karen Kringlie, director of state juvenile court in Fargo.
Susan Solheim, a judicial referee in Fargo, said about 80 percent of juvenile delinquency cases don't enter the courtroom. In those cases, the duty of getting traumatized kids into treatment falls to juvenile probation officers, she said.
When delinquency cases do reach court, treatment is often part of a referee's order, but in child abuse and neglect cases, it's social services staff and parents who make a plan to address the family's needs, which may include treatment, she said.
Dale Thompson, a judicial referee in Bottineau, N.D., said he's never had a case in which a child or family needing treatment wasn't able to receive it. However, he said accessing such services is often difficult for rural residents who have to drive long distances.
Although Brandi didn't get the treatment she believed she needed, she said foster care was good to her. However, she wasn't prepared for the downsides of her decision to enter the system, which also ended up taking in her older sister.
Brandi felt that her family was being torn away from her.
"I wasn't able to see them. They didn't really make an effort to come see me," she said. "They were mad at me because I had done something that, you know, I wasn't supposed to do."
Distraught, Brandi struggled alone. All she wanted, she said, was someone to understand what she was going through.