Child Exploitation in Special Areas and Populations

Most child sexual abuse offenses fall under state jurisdiction. However, when the offense occurs on federal lands, such as national parks, military bases, or tribal territories, then the case falls under federal jurisdiction. Other areas of federal jurisdiction include federally owned facilities, such as holding facilities or detention centers, and maritime cases, such as those occurring on a cruise ship or airplane. This chapter will explore the dynamics of combating child exploitation in some of these unique federal jurisdiction settings: Indian country, military installations, unaccompanied noncitizen minors entering the United States, cruise ships, and commercial flights.

Indian Country

Children in tribal communities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. According to the most recent 2019 National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN)1 children are 50% more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than Caucasian children. The long-term impacts of this abuse are profound. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like child sexual abuse are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse problems in adulthood and can negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.2 Many of the contributing factors to child sexual abuse in Indian country are the same as in other parts of the United States. However, tribal communities face additional complex issues, such as historical or generational trauma, lack of federal support and resources, and larger systemic economic and social challenges. Community or housing situations that increase the number of people in the region or the number of people who have access to AI/AN children, may increase the risk of child exploitation. Local or regional events may also increase both tourism and travel between reservations or tribally held property, potentially increasing access to children by predators. Crowded or transient family living arrangements can also increase the number of people in a home who have access to children, and thus increase the risk of abuse.

Federal Jurisdiction

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States today. The federal government’s responsibility in child sexual abuse cases occurring in Indian country, in part, is determined by whether the crime occurred in a P.L. 280 jurisdiction or a non-P.L. 280 jurisdiction. In 1953, Congress passed P.L. 280,3 which delegated criminal jurisdiction and limited civil jurisdiction over Indian country from the Federal Government to six states: Alaska (with the exception of the Metlakatla Indian Tribe), California, Minnesota (with the exception of the Red Lake Reservation), Nebraska, Oregon (with the exception of the Warm Springs Reservation), and Wisconsin. In non-P.L. 280 jurisdictions, the federal government has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute sexual abuse crimes committed within Indian country if either the defendant or the victim is an Indian person.4

Investigative Challenges

Child sexual abuse cases in Indian country present special challenges and require particularized investigative strategies, training, and resources. Many child sexual abuse crimes in tribal communities involve repeated hands-on offenses committed by a person the child knows, loves, or trusts. Sexual abuse is typically committed outside the presence of witnesses and frequently lacks corroborating physical evidence.6 Delayed disclosure of these offenses is common, and sometimes the delay in reporting spans many years. As with other similar cases nationally, many tribal communities are small and tightly knit, which may discourage a victim from disclosing their abuse to prevent others in the community from discovering the abuse. Moreover, the child may feel fear, shame, humiliation, or simply may not realize that they are a victim of a crime. Victims may face pressure to not to report their abuse, to recant an allegation, or may be afraid of retribution by the offender. Intergenerational sexual abuse may lead to attitudes of normalization, and reporting may damage relationships with extended family members.


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