If You See Something, Say Something

When it comes to being a Child Advocate so much has changed over the past fifty years. Today we are daily addressing problems of child abuse, both physical and emotional. Child sex trafficking has become more and more prevalent, even within tribal communities. It is up to all of us in law enforcement and community members alike to join forces in being aware of telltale signs of child exploitation.

Not all indicators listed below are present in every child abuse or trafficking situation; the presence or absence of any of the indicators may not provide proof in and of itself. My hope is that as you read this blog, you will become more aware of these signs of endangered or exploited children.  It is up to you – to all of us - to say something if we see something.

  • Is the child often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where the child goes or who the child talks to?
  • Does the child appear to be coached on what to say?
  • Is the child living in unsuitable conditions?
  • Does the child lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
  • Does the child have appropriate freedom of movement? Can the child freely leave where they live to go to school or other normal activities? Are there unreasonable security measures being taken where the child lives?

I remember growing up in Indian Country in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Back then, we held our culture very close to our vests. We did not advertise our stomp dances to the general public. We did not share our songs or our stories with the non-Indian. We kept things to ourselves; I think mostly due to generations of our people being misunderstood, mistreated and/or being forced to assimilate into the dominant society that surrounded us. 

Even today as a Native American, it still seems common for tribal members to not say things about other people, especially if what we know might hurt someone. It seems natural for us to not think about or talk about ‘something’ due to the belief we may move ourselves closer to that ‘something.’ In other words, not saying things may make that ‘something’ go away; conversely talking about it may make it happen.

I believe that today we need to change that way of thinking, especially when it comes to child safety. We cannot bury our heads in the sand.  If we see something that is not right, or looks suspicious, we need to say something.

  • Is the child disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
  • Does the child have bruises in various stages of healing?
  • Is the child fearful, timid, or submissive?
  • Does the child show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care?
  • Does the child appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations or houses of worship?

In the past it has been rare for tribes to share their culture and ceremonies with other tribes. One exception I do know of is the Kiowa Nation. They give permission for the Cherokee Nation to practice their sacred Gourd Dance during Cherokee ceremony. Gourd Dancing is to honor warriors past and present, and is the first dance at powwows within the Cherokee Nation. During this dance we honor all family members who served in the Military or in Law Enforcement.  Unfortunately, this sharing amongst tribes is still today largely uncommon across our known 570+ recognized tribes. 

More recently in the 1970’s, I recall some tribes refusing to sit in meetings with another tribe due to the disapproval of sharing their tribal knowledge with outsiders. Sometimes tribes refused to meet with others due to one tribe’s historical grudge against another. We were still holding our culture very close to our chests.

  • Is the child often late or missing from school?
  • Is the child frequently left alone or unsupervised at home?
  • Does the child consistently have bad hygiene (unbathed, dirty hair, body odor)?
  • Is the child allowed to play in dangerous environments?
  • Does the child not have a curfew or bedtime?

Within the timespan of the past 50 years, I have witnessed much progress through tribal leaders and communities working together – both inter-tribally and with non-Indian groups. Just eleven years ago, in 2007, I began working with the AMBER Alert in Indian Country initiative. Yet even then, we still had tribes who were unsure or uncomfortable about opening up to non-Indian law enforcement.

One of my first tasks in AMBER Alert in Indian Country meetings was to act as a liaison between native and non-native law enforcement groups. Unfortunately, there were many times I would need to interrupt conversations to assist in providing clear thinking so that past prejudice could be put aside for the sake of child safety – for those children both within and outside of Indian Country. However, I found that many tribes with their own law enforcement agencies were often more inclined to learn about the newest safety issues, and also more open to engaging in interactive cooperation with non-Indian entities.

Today, I can safely say most all tribes are eager to absorb as much information as they can to provide safety for their tribal members. However, a strong need continues to exist for educating tribal communities to say something if they see something.

  • Does the child often wear clothing that covers up the skin, even in warm weather?
  • Does the child seem afraid to go home?
  • Does the child startle easily, shy away from touch, or show other skittish behavior?
  • Is the child constantly fearful or anxious about doing something wrong?
  • Is the child withdrawn from peers and adults?

The 1950 census reported a population of 217 million people. Our indigenous population was not counted, but if compared to today, it would have been just 1-2 percent of that number. The dominant society had definitely surrounded us. So understandingly we were keeping quiet and continuing to hold our culture very close to our chests.

From 1950 to today, the United States population has increased by 147 million people, with the latest census reporting more than 364 million people on the North American continent; 147 million more reasons why everyone – and we as tribal members - must address both known and emerging child safety issues. Now more than ever we need to say something if we see something.

  • Are there recurrent unexplained injuries such as bruises or cuts, often appearing in patterns?
  • Does the child seem to always be expecting something bad to happen?
  • Does behavior fluctuate between extremes (i.e., extremely cooperative or extremely demanding)?
  • Is the child acting either inappropriately beyond his/her age (like an adult; taking care of other children) or inappropriately younger than his/her age (like an infant; throwing tantrums)?

We as indigenous people have come a very long way since the 1950’s. Today we have come together as one to protect our most vulnerable. Today we have the opportunity to address and meet our tribal needs for high-quality training and comprehensive preparations for providing and protecting child safety in our communities.

We here at the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program, through the AMBER Alert in Indian Country initiative, look forward to bringing your community resources and training, and sharing experiences toward important learning which strengthens and builds both law enforcement and community readiness to protect tribal youth.

Spread the word among all tribal members, law enforcement or not. And always remember, if you see something say something.

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Wa do (Wah Doe). THANK YOU.

Do Na Da Go huh I (Doe Naw Daw Go Huh ee). UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN.

Ron Gurley M.S. Ed.