Tribes face hurdles with sex offender registration

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico (AP) March 2010

Only two groups of Native American tribes and one state have implemented sex offender registration and notification systems that comply with a federal law passed nearly three years ago to coordinate and expand sex offender registration nationwide, a U.S. Justice Department official said Wednesday.

The deadline to implement registration programs that comply with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 is this summer, but many tribes and states are expected to file for extensions, said Stephanie LoConto, a senior policy adviser with the agency’s office that coordinates sex offender registration and tracking.

“It’s frustrating because the law was passed with no money, really, and we have these connectivity issues with DNA and fingerprints. So we’re just trying to be the little engine that could and do the best we can,” LoConto said.

Sex offender registration was among the topics at a three-day national symposium focused on the protection of children in Indian communities. About 300 tribal representatives, law enforcement officers, social workers and others from across the nation are attending the symposium.

The Adam Walsh Act, named after the slain son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, requires convicted violent sex offenders to register with local authorities, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections.

The law gave tribes until July 27, 2007, to participate in an integrated, uniform registry system, and it allowed states to register sex offenders living in Indian Country in cases where tribes did not opt in to the system.

Tribes and states originally had until July 2009 to create a registry that includes offender descriptions, photographs, fingerprints, criminal history and DNA samples, as well as notify the community and create a Web site to make offender information available to the public.

Federal officials pushed that deadline back until this July. Tribes and states also can apply for an additional one-year extension.

As nearly 200 tribes have worked to come into compliance with the law, they have run into obstacles on state and local levels that prevent them from entering information about sex offenders, such as DNA and fingerprints, into national crime databases.

In Arizona, state law prevents tribes from accessing the databases to enter information, said Jesse Crabtree, a detective with the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s police department.

“We want to protect our kids at Fort McDowell and the cities and the state of Arizona also want to protect their kids, so it’s just a matter of coordinating that,” Crabtree said. “Hopefully, with a little more work we can bridge those barriers and overcome them.”

Other tribes have voiced concerns about the costs of complying with the sex offender registration and notification requirements, including those that are in remote areas and lack needed technical infrastructure.

Tribes also have raised sovereignty issues, saying that meeting the requirements and being forced to work with outside entities to build their registries may permit unprecedented access to tribal court, membership and other records.

“Our state is good about working with tribal governments in many areas, but when it comes to sovereignty we’re very protective,” said Bernadine Burnette, vice president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.

Still, Burnette said it’s possible through memorandums of understanding and other agreements that tribes and states can work together to ensure Indian communities are protected from sexual predators.

It’s unclear how many sex offenders there are in Indian county, but the latest statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children put the number at over 700,000 nationally.

Ernie Allen, the center’s president, said it’s not unexpected that states and tribes will need more time to comply with the law given budget shortfalls and a lack of resources.

Ohio and the confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the Yakama Nation in Washington are the three that have complied with the law. New Mexico and Florida are close to reaching compliance and several tribes have submitted their plans to federal officials for review.

Allen said his group is pushing Congress to release more funding so states and tribes can reach the goal of creating a seamless, nationwide net for tracking offenders more quickly.

“It should be hard to imagine something of a higher priority than protecting our children,” Allen said.