2022 Student Journalism Award, Portfolio: Student Team finalist

little victims everywhere

About the Project

Child sexual abuse is among the worst scourges on Indigenous communities in North America, yet little hard data exists on the extent of the problem. Some researchers estimate it could be as high as one in every two children.

Dr. Renée Ornelas, a veteran child abuse pediatric specialist working in the Navajo Nation — the largest and most populous tribal nation in the United States — said practically every family she sees has a history of child sexual abuse. “They’re just little victims everywhere,” she said.

In “little victims everywhere,” the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University analyzed nearly a decade of federal Justice Department data and found that hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse in Indian Country are falling through the cracks. The FBI has administratively closed more than 1,900 criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in Indian Country since 2011, reporters found. Child sex abuse investigations accounted for about 30% of all major crimes on reservations officially dropped by the FBI each year — more than any other type of crime, including murders and assaults, the Howard Center analysis showed.

Additionally, Justice Department caseload data, analyzed by the Howard Center, revealed that U.S. attorneys pursued charges less than half the time in child sexual abuse cases from Indian Country — about one-third less often than they filed charges in other crimes. Only a small percentage of child sexual abuse defendants from Indian Country went to trial; most cases ended in plea bargains, which typically involve lesser sentences.

Beyond the investigation’s main story, a sidebar called “Moon & Sun” examined the role of federal Indian boarding schools in the problem of child sexual abuse among Native Americans and its lasting intergenerational trauma. The title was inspired by a traditional story shared by child psychologist Dr. Dolores Subia BigFoot, a Caddo Nation member who directs the Native American Programs at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Center. This age-old parable tells the story of incest between a brother and sister and is used to instruct members in appropriate sexual conduct. Such stories make clear the endemic nature of this problem, but offer traditional tools for breaking the cycle and healing – two things the federal justice system has failed to deliver.

A group of six undergraduate and graduate students spent three months reporting this project, based on the research and initial data analysis of two Howard Center student researchers. The multimedia project, co-published by Cronkite News/AZ PBS and Indian Country Today, features two digital stories, original photography and infographics, and a video documentary featuring families in the Navajo Nation and indigenous experts. The Associated Press published a truncated version of the mainbar, which was picked up by more than 80 news outlets in the U.S. and abroad, including The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Toronto Star and CNN India.