Indian country can be a grand place, full of history and culture, but like any other place in this world, it is not without faults. According to Choctaw Nation Project SAFE Director Lari Ann Brister, Oklahoma’s instances of dating abuse is three times higher than the national average, and 17 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women are stalked in their lifetime, compared to 8.2 percent of white women, 6.5 percent of African-American women, and 4.5 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander women, showing that Native American women are at least 2 times more likely to be stalked than any other race.
With these facts evident, the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women made the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma the stewards of a grant in 2006 to provide awareness on the issues of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in Southeastern Oklahoma, as well as make provisions for victims of these crimes.
Project SAFE is the program that has been enacted to meet these goals. The “SAFE” is an acronym for “Striving for an Abuse Free Environment.”
Director Brister, whose office is in Durant, is in charge of the bulk of the happenings of the program. Her overarching orders hail from Washington D.C., but she is given freedom to implement plans how she deems necessary.
Along with Brister, two coordinators aid with the grant’s activities. Karen Lyons in Talihina and Davania Rowell in Broken Bow tackle the events and actions in their areas. “Their main job is to implement programs within our communities that bring awareness,” said Brister. While accomplishing their goals, Brister allows much room for creativity. She tells that they are free to do what they feel brings awareness. This flexibility comes from them determining the unmet needs in the areas they serve. If there are higher instances of dating abuse in a particular county, they will focus on dating abuse prevention.
“Our program is not necessarily geared towards Choctaws, it’s for everyone,” said Brister as she explained that even though Project SAFE focuses on the Choctaw area, they are not Choctaw exclusive and desire for awareness to spread to everyone.
To combat the issue of dating violence, Project SAFE is dealing heavily with schools by providing Safe Dates Curriculum. This is a set of teachings for children in grades 5 – 12 that teaches how to spot the signs of an abusive relationship, what to do if involved in one and how to avoid them. Evidence on a national level has shown that it is effective at reducing the occurrences of dating violence in school students.
In schools, Project SAFE has also begun to place flyers in bathrooms with a bit of information about abusive relationships with tear-offs at the bottom containing numbers to call for advice and assistance. Initially there were only slightly over 100, but after a period of time, they realized that a great majority of the tear-offs were gone, indicating that there were a multitude of individuals seeking this kind of assistance. “To us, it means that we have a lot of work to do,” mentioned Brister.
The Project SAFE trio is not the only group spreading the information within the schools though. “We do a lot of work with our YAB [Youth Advisory Board], especially for the teen dating violence,” emphasized Brister.
There is a teen conference every year which 300-400 potential advocates of awareness attend. Project SAFE teaches these students the latest information and send them to the school districts to help spread the awareness and prevention. “They are awesome about participating,” declared Brister as she praised the YAB students for their help in forwarding the cause.
Past elementary and high schools, Project SAFE focuses a considerable amount on college campuses because, according to Brister, stalking is a major problem plaguing this sector of the population. In an effort to reduce the occurrence of this act, Project SAFE travels to many of the area campuses, usually in correlation with freshman orientation, to spread knowledge about what to do if stalked and how to avoid the situation altogether.
The outreach education and assistance of Project SAFE stretches far beyond students and campuses. To combat the likes of domestic violence and sexual assault, Project SAFE is present for community gatherings around the area such as health fairs and Durant’s annual event, Magnolia Festival, to spread awareness.
Project SAFE also does a great deal to prepare communities to deal with cases of assault. They provide training for law enforcement on how to deal with sensitive cases such as these and offer CLEET training.
The will also help local services such as crisis centers when budgets are tight. They will help purchase resources, as well as pay for the necessary actions to keep the workers certified to deal with these types of issues.
Through this work, there have been moments that Brister and her team view as beacons of success, instances that they have seen where their actions have made a noticeable positive impact.
Brister mentions that through the Safe Date Curriculum, there has been a growing want for more interaction with the students. Brister mentioned that they have received calls form various school administrators requesting that Project SAFE present information at their schools. “This is a testament,” said Brister as she spoke of how the requests were evidence that the presentations were effective.
Making funding available for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) at the Talihina hospital is another huge success for the organization. These SANE certified individuals are RNs who can perform sexual assault exams, and due to a low number of them in the state, many victims are hindered from receiving these types of exams.
“In Oklahoma, there are only a few,” said Brister, and “If there is a victim in McCurtain County, she might have to drive two or three hours just to get the examination,” she continued. However, as Project SAFE helps certify more of these nurses, that problem will become lessened.
Taking it a step further than just getting RNs trained to be SANE certified, a special room has even be set up at the hospital just for the exams. Besides just getting the exam, the victims will also be provided with information on what to do next, along with more advocacy than normally can be provided.
“This is a major accomplishment of what we have done,” declared Brister. That is a first to us, to be a tribe and to be able to reach out to not only Native Americans, but also anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault, she continued.
Project SAFE has also been responsible for producing a set of materials filled with information that can aid victims in their time of need called a victim’s resource envelope. Officers can hand this compilation of resources and information to victims immediately after the crime is reported. It contains numbers of who to call, services available, what to expect in the court system and various other bits of helpful information.
Project SAFE has been responsible for the publication of a few thousand of these documents, but has had requests for many more. Because victims often are under too much stress to remember all the procedures instructed by the police, this acts as a quick reference.
Due to these actions and services provided by Project SAFE, the program was given awards for making a difference by the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a National Coalition.
This recognition is a perk of the job, but not the main reward for Brister and her co-workers. She made known that getting the information out, preventing these types of crimes and minimizing the trauma is priority number one for her and the Project SAFE team.