BY BRITTNEY BENNETT
TAHLEQUAH - On April 15 the Tribal Victim Services Set-Aside Program announced that the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians had been awarded a $720,000 grant to its Health and Human Services Department for victims of crime.
“When we received notice that we were awarded the full $720,000 I was immediately excited,” said Jennifer Cole-Robinson, Health and Human Services director. “It’s overwhelming, but exciting because this has been a need for our tribal members and the community in general.”
The funds are distributed under the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 and will assist both the public and Keetoowahs who are victims of violent crimes with both direct and indirect services.
“What we will do with this grant is we will hire a program manager and three advocates to provide direct and referral services to victims,” said Cole-Robinson. “We will have a Jay-area advocate will handle the northern areas of our jurisdiction. For Tahlequah, I am looking to focus on Cherokee and Adair County. Then we’ll have an advocate in the southern area, probably in Sallisaw, that will handle the Muskogee and Sequoyah County areas.”
The program will specifically service individuals affected by crimes that would rise to a felony level, such as homicide, rape, human trafficking, elder abuse, assault and battery and child sexual abuse.
“Any of those crimes, tribal members can reach out and see if we have the ability to help them,” said Cole-Robinson. “Our advocates will meet with the families immediately upon finding out about the crime, go over the victim’s rights, go over victim’s compensation with them, act as that liaison between the victim and the court system. The court system is a very scary system for anybody, let alone somebody that is going through that much trauma.”
Advocates will also provide additional services to victims including transporting them to court hearings and any necessary medical examinations, as well as making sure victims understand the court system so criminals can be brought to justice.
“In talking to victims, they are scared of the court system, they don’t understand the court system and so they are very hesitant to go into the court and testify to receive closure and justice,” said Cole-Robinson. “One of the things that I hope these advocates are able to do is address that fear and hesitancy so we can not only help them heal, but hold the offenders accountable and help the criminal justice system work better.”
The program is also keeping the Cherokee language in mind when assisting victims.
“One of the things that is unique about our grant submission is that we would be hiring one, if not at least two advocates, that are fluent in Cherokee,” said Cole-Robinson. “If English is their second language and they don’t understand the court system very well because of that, our advocates will be able to translate into their native language so they will understand what is going on. Otherwise, there’s no accountability for the offenders and our victims aren’t moving forward.”
All services will be confidential.
“It’s very important to OVC, as well as myself in particular, is that we sign an agreement with our services that identities will remain very confidential,” said Cole-Robinson.
Both she and UKB Grant Writer Marquana Fourkiller worked on receiving the grant together. It is the first time the grant is being offered to tribal nations.
“This was the first time that the OVC for Victims of Crime have offered this funding to tribes,” said Cole-Robinson. “The state was the only one getting this money. This year, they specifically allotted money to tribes to set these programs up. What we stated that we would do in the grant is that we would handle 25 victims a quarter and we were awarded for three years.”
Services are set to begin in early 2020.