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Cherokee breaks new ground with fines for domestic violence

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is hitting domestic violence abusers in their pocketbooks.

People convicted of domestic violence-related charges must now pay a $1,000 fine, in addition to other penalties handed down by tribal court. Tribal council approved of the measure at its meeting last week.

“We are hoping this will make them stop and think,” said Iva Key, the Eastern Band’s Domestic Violence program manager. “A lot of these are repeat offenders,” Key said later.

Money collected from the fine will be split 50-50 between services for victims of domestic violence and other tribal initiatives such as education.

A possible downside to the fine, however, is the financial hardship it might cause, especially if a family is trying to reunite and rebuild after an incident of abuse. Not everyone has $1,000 of disposable income, which means that money cannot be spent on necessities for the family.

“That is a huge amount of money,” said Julia Freeman, executive director of REACH of Haywood County, who serves victims of domestic violence.

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However, Freeman also said the revenue for the fine could result in enhancement of services for victims — a positive outcome. “That’s wonderful,” Freeman said. “That could make a significant difference.”

At its core, the fine is aimed at preventing instances of abuse. Each year, tribal court in Cherokee issues about 120 domestic violence restraining orders, which are legal decrees meant to shield someone from another’s abuse or harassment. That number only includes people who take action against their abuser, however. There is no telling how many domestic violence cases go unreported.

“That doesn’t encompass the realm of domestic violence,” Key said.

For example, the nearby counties of Jackson and Macon see an average of 58 and 95 domestic violence victims a month, respectively. However, only a small fraction of those receive protective orders.

Both counties have their own programs, REACH of Jackson County and REACH of Macon County.

The hope is that imposing a mandatory fine on those found guilty of domestic violence will act as a deterrent, especially in instances of habitual abuse. It may not be the same victim each time, but in some cases, the same abuser will show up in court again and again.

“We don’t have anyway to stem the tide,” said Councilwoman Terri Henry before the vote was taken. “Nobody is making you hit somebody else,” she added.

Henry has made domestic violence her cause, fighting for the victims, for stricter penalties and for better federal legislation.

She is currently working with leaders in Washington, D.C., to pass a Violence Against Women Act. The original act, which was passed in 1994 and awards money to organizations that combat domestic violence, expired this year.

The U.S. Senate passed a version of the bill that added new amendments to protect those in same-sex relationships, immigrants who may not be here legally and Native American women. The latter was a sticking point for Republicans in the U.S. House, which, if passed, would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal members in cases of domestic violence — a power it does not currently have. Non-tribal members accused of domestic violence against a tribal member cannot be prosecuted in tribal court but instead enter the federal court system, where delays and caseload mean the abuser may never be held accountable.

For Henry, that precedent is problematic when it comes to combating domestic violence on the reservation, especially since a large number — about half — of Cherokee women marry white men.

“It’s a big gaping hole,” Henry said.

Henry will continue to speak with U.S. legislators in support of the bill and the added amendment that increases protection for Native women.

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