Parity Through Process? Challenges, Successes, and the Future of Full Faith and Credit Recognition of Tribal Domestic Violence Protective Orders in Alaska

By Rick A. Garcia, Esquire, Co-Director of Law and Policy for the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center

Since moving to Alaska in 2018, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alaska Native (AN) Tribes, courts, and justice systems to improve service delivery, infrastructure, and to help raise their voices and priorities on the state, national, and international stages. I’ve also had the unique experience of serving as a District Court Magistrate Judge for the Alaska Court System (ACS), based in Aniak and Hooper Bay—both predominantly AN off-road system communities.

As a Judge, I presided over criminal cases and domestic violence protective order (DVPO) petitions from 25 AN villages. The importance of my professional journey is to highlight my experiences and understanding of how the ACS processes state DVPOs within the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS), as well as challenges with recognition and enforcement of Tribal DVPOs in our state public safety systems.

I left the court in 2021 and began working with AN Tribes again. For me, working with AN Tribes was a more meaningful personal and professional pathway and use of my education and experience. In 2021, I was presented with a request from a Tribe seeking enforcement of a Tribal DVPO and contacted three Alaska State Troopers (AST) posts that I worked with as a Judge to receive guidance on enforcing Tribal DVPOs that have not been registered with the ACS.

These conversations yielded alarming and hugely varying responses, none of which were consistent with the spirit and requirements of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In particular, I was advised that:

  • AST could enforce a Tribal DVPO, however, a Tribe is required to pay a $60 fee for enforcement.
  • AST was not authorized to enforce Tribal DVPOs. That AST jurisdiction and authority only allowed for enforcement of Alaska State court DVPOs.
  • AST was unsure whether they had the authority to enforce Tribal DVPOs.

From these alarming responses, a working group emerged consisting of the DPS, the Alaska Department of Law, the AST, and three non-profit organizations, including the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, the Alaska Native Justice Center, and RurAL Cap. The working group met to discuss federal requirements, enforcement of Tribal DVPOs, and systemic challenges to recognizing and enforcing Tribal DVPOs.

For those unfamiliar with Alaska, the AST are primarily responsible for public safety in areas with no dedicated police agencies, which includes most AN remote rural communities. Although there are 42 trooper posts throughout Alaska, AST cites a lack of staffing for not meeting their goal of “providing a trooper presence in every community that desires full-service law enforcement.”1 As of 2017, AST was “operating with approximately 40 vacant trooper positions” and cited “reduced trooper positions…and a lack of equipment to effectively respond to calls for service in rural Alaska…reduced ability to respond to routine calls for service.”2 It is not difficult to see that challenges in DPS staffing leave rural villages unprotected, vulnerable, and in dire need of public safety.

It’s no secret that Alaska ranks within the top five states with the highest rates of domestic violence.3 Congress found, in Section 811 of Title VIII of the Violence Against Women Act 2022 Reauthorization, that AN women are:

  • Overrepresented in the domestic violence victim population by 250%.
  • Comprise 19% of the population in Alaska, but comprise 47 % of reported rape victims in the state.
  • Compared to the populations of other Indian Tribes, they suffer the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence.

A 2022 report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC) also found that nearly half (48%) of Alaska women over the age of 18 experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime and that AN people were disproportionately represented among both victims (60%).4

The Violence Against Women Act’s Full Faith and Credit Recognition Requirement

The VAWA 1994 marked the first comprehensive federal legislative package designed to end violence against women. VAWA has been reauthorized four times, most recently in 2022. Each reauthorization reaffirmed the legal relationship and commitment of the U.S. to Tribes, the safety of Native women, and Tribal sovereignty.7

Included in VAWA is the requirement that DVPOs issued by a Tribe or state receive full faith and credit recognition by other Tribes or states.8 Full faith and credit recognition requires sovereigns respect the laws and judgments of courts from other sovereigns, attempting to prevent conflict and ensure the dependability of court decisions.

What this means is that any DVPO issued by an AN Tribe is required to be recognized and enforced by the state of Alaska and other Tribes as if the DVPO were issued in an Alaska state court or Alaska Tribal court. In theory, full faith and credit recognition of Alaska Tribal protective order respects and upholds Tribal sovereignty. However, in practice, it results in an unreasonable burden on Tribal survivors of domestic violence, especially considering the variety of responses received from AST when attempting to gain information on how to receive help with the enforcement of a Tribal DVPO.

Enforcement of Alaska Tribal DVPOs Today

Currently,  AN survivors who receive a Tribal DVPO have two options available when seeking assistance and enforcement from the DPS: Their Tribal court may register the DVPO with the ACS or may forward a copy directly to the AST. One process is identified, while the other lacks formal processes and procedures, placing the burden of knowing local procedures on the survivor and Tribal court.

Registration with the Alaska Court System

A Tribal DVPO may be registered through the ACS for recognition and distribution to state public safety and law enforcement officers (LEOs). To register with the ACS, no forms are required if registering in person at a local district court. However, because Alaska courts are located in “hub communities” and urban areas, registering a Tribal DVPO in person for those located in off-road and rural communities is not always possible.

To address this issue, the ACS provides a centralized procedure for registering Tribal DVPOs by fax or email that requires using specific forms. The ACS requires a “verification form” to be filled by the Tribal court requesting registration that details specific contact information about the court seeking registration, which is helpful if the ACS Clerk of Court (Clerk) has questions or requires additional information. Additionally, verification and signature are required from the Tribal court.

Once a Tribal DVPO is registered with ACS, the Clerk will assign the Tribal DVPO a state court case number. The Clerk will then distribute the DVPO to state LEOs for enforcement and entry into the Alaska Public Safety Information Network’s (APSIN) Central Registry as a “domestic violence protective order.”

VAWA prohibits any Tribe or state from requiring registration or filing as a prerequisite to full faith and credit recognition and enforcement. However, registration of Tribal DVPOs through the ACS should be considered best practice for Tribes seeking full faith and credit recognition of a Tribal DVPO.

Recognition and Enforcement through the AST

A Tribal court may also forward a Tribal DVPO directly to their local AST post for recognition and enforcement. Unlike the ACS, the AST does not have a centralized process for recognition and enforcement of Tribal DVPOs and relies on each AST post to develop its own policy and method of receiving Tribal DVPOs.

What this means is that the responsibility of knowing the preferred method of delivery and process for each of AST’s 42 posts falls on the survivor or Tribal court. In addition, the burden and responsibility of keeping updated on any changes in procedure, policy, and delivery remain on the survivor and the Tribal court issuing the Tribal DVPO.

Without a centralized process, survivors and Tribal courts are left navigating over 40 different requirements and methods of delivery for Tribal DVPOs not registered with the ACS.

Tribal DVPOs forwarded directly to the AST are entered into APSIN as a “locate only.” This categorization leads to additional challenges with the exchange and retrieval of information, which leads to difficulties and gaps in enforcement.

The Alaska Public Safety Information Network (APSIN)

The APSIN is a database maintained by the DPS, used to track arrests, criminal histories, warrants, and other information for LEOs, including state and Tribal DVPOs. Although APSIN can be used to input data relating to both state and Tribal DVPOs, the categorization and data differences when recording each highlights systemic differences in input, information sharing, and enforcement efficacy.

When a state DVPO is forwarded to DPS, it is entered into APSIN as a “domestic violence protective order.” This means that APSIN data fields will contain vital information about the parties and protections ordered by the state court, which are viewable and retrievable by all LEOs statewide.

By contrast, Tribal DVPOs are entered as a “locate” only, which does not allow all relevant information to be entered into APSIN, including detailed information about the parties and protections ordered by a Tribal court. It also means that the Tribal DVPO is not entered in the central registry, leaving gaps in viewable and retrievable information by state LEOs. Therefore, a Tribal survivor is required to carry and produce a valid Tribal DVPO to any LEO when seeking assistance and enforcement. Survivors of domestic violence often operate in many stages of a crisis, constantly worrying about safety, security, and well-being. Requiring survivors to have a readable copy of a Tribal DVPO with them is an added burden that survivors should not have to bear.

The Future of Alaska Tribal DVPOs

In response to our working group, the DPS has committed to implementing changes to APSIN processing of Tribal DVPOs. These changes will allow Tribal DVPOs to be entered in parity as state DVPOs.

The APSIN system is an antiquated system requiring specialized programming expertise to make needed changes. DPS has been reprogramming its APSIN system since early 2022. When APSIN is updated, it will allow Tribal DVPOs to be entered in the same manner as state DVPOs and will require Tribal DVPOs to contain mandatory data fields and information that match current APSIN-required data fields, including personal and contact information of the Petitioner and Respondent and protections that are identical (or similar) to state protections found in AS 18.66.100(c)(1-7).

If a Tribal DVPO cannot be entered in APSIN under the substantive changes because the information in the Tribal DVPO does not match the required APSIN data fields, that Tribal DVPO will continue to be entered as a locate only. When this happens, the survivor seeking enforcement will be required to follow the current “locate” process and always carry on them a valid Tribal DVPO to present to LEOs, when seeking assistance and enforcement.

In addition to APSIN substantive changes, DPS is committed to reviewing and implementing changes to their internal processes and procedures and is considering establishing a centralized office for delivery and enforcement of Tribal DVPOs. Currently, DPS does not have a centralized procedure for delivery of Tribal DVPOs to AST for enforcement. Some Trooper posts prefer to receive Tribal DVPOs by fax, while others prefer email. The lack of a centralized process forces Tribes to comply with different standards of delivery across the state. To help make this process more efficient statewide, DPS is considering creating a centralized email for Tribes seeking enforcement of Tribal DVPOs. DPS would manage the centralized email address and would enter all Tribal DVPOs received statewide through this email address.

It’s important to mention that throughout the last two years AKNWRC and other partners have engaged in difficult conversations with the DPS, the AST, the DOL, and other stakeholders regarding the enforcement of Tribal DVPOs. Although conversations have sometimes been difficult, DPS and other stakeholders have listened meaningfully and implemented many of the recommendations put forward by Tribal stakeholders.

Although we still have much work to do in Alaska with our state and state agencies, we celebrate the changes we’ve secured, ensuring parity of Tribal DVPOs within the current DPS systems.

Crystal Shannon (Rice) McDonald (pictured in the frame), a Tribal citizen of the Village of Emmonak and a loving mother of 3, was a victim of domestic violence and homicide. The 1st degree murder charges against Crystal’s husband were dismissed. / Photo courtesy of Jessie Rice, AKNWRC Crime Victim’s Program Specialist and sister of Crystal McDonald.