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Domestic violence and its disproportionate impacts on Indigenous communities and communities of color

In 2020, 40% of domestic violence homicide victims were Black, while comprising less than 7% of Minnesota’s population, Violence Free Minnesota’s 2020 report states. Native victims accounted for 10% of the 2020 homicide victims, while the Native population makes up only 1% of the state.

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Brandy Lee-Williams, Keona Foote’s mother, takes a moment of silence during a candlelight vigil for Keona Foote, her unborn child, and daughter Miyona Lee-Miller Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at Central Park in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott
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On a recent cold and rainy night in Rochester, more than a dozen people gathered under the gazebo at Central Park.

Holding candles, and sometimes each other, the group had come together to remember the life of 23-year-old Keona Foote and her 2-year-old daughter Miyona Lee Miller, who were killed more than a year ago. A Rochester man, whom Foote was in a relationship with, has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder for their deaths.

Among the group was Brandy Lee-Williams, Foote’s mother.

ALSO READ: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men: October is domestic violence awareness month

“They brought us so much joy and happiness, to even imagine life without them we never, ever did,” Lee-Williams said. “That is something that we struggle with every single day.”

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In the year since her daughter, granddaughter and unborn grandchild were ripped from her life, Lee-Williams has focused her grief on keeping her daughter’s memory alive through advocacy.

“My focus is to save lives in honor of Keona and Miyona’s lives being stolen,” Lee-Wililams said. "I don’t want anyone else, any family, anyone to feel this type of pain and I know if we all work together and work together for the cause, we can do great things. I’m ready for it. That’s the only thing I’m focusing on."

The young mother and daughter are among a grim statistic -- Black women are murdered by male intimate partners at a rate nearly three times that of white women, according to research from the Violence Policy Center included in Violence Free Minnesota’s 2020 report.

Systemic issues contribute to disproportionate impacts

“We know that African American women and Indigenous women are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence,” said Artyce Thomas, executive director of the Women's Shelter and Support Center. “In addition to that, unfortunately, they are more likely to be murdered due to domestic violence homicide.”

In 2020, 40% of domestic violence homicide victims were Black, while comprising less than 7% of Minnesota’s population, the report states. Native victims accounted for 10% of the 2020 homicide victims, while the Native population makes up only 1% of the state.

A survivor of domestic violence herself, Lee-Williams said in “African American culture, a lot of people don't like to call law enforcement because of the relationship that we’ve had with law enforcement that has not been trusting.”

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A photo is displayed of Keona Foote and her daughter Miyona Lee-Miller during a candlelight vigil Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at Central Park in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

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Systemic issues, like generational trauma and oppression, as well as jurisdiction issues between tribes and states that create barriers to justice, are just a few of the factors that contribute to the disproportionate impact domestic violence has on Native communities and communities of color.

Economic abuse, especially among Black women who are disproportionately underpaid compared to their white counterparts, can be roadblocks on the path to leaving an abuser.

Historical traumas can also play a part in what resources a person may turn to if they do suffer abuse. If a person is leery of calling the police, like some immigrants from war-torn countries where police are routinely not trusted, it can also limit the amount of proof a survivor would have in court.

“And so when she goes to court and the judge says ‘Where is the police report?’ there is usually none to provide,” said Comfort Dondo, founder of Phumulani Minnesota African Women Against Domestic Violence. “And then that is deemed abuse didn't happen and that takes away a lot.”

She founded the Twin Cities-based nonprofit after her own experience with domestic abuse.

Meeting the need

Limited access to resources created by a lack of awareness in certain marginalized communities can also create barriers to services for survivors.

“The Women’s Shelter has been here for 40-plus years in the community but sometimes we find that there are individuals who are not aware of our services and that we are here,” Thomas said. “I think sometimes, traditional domestic violence programs just have an assumption if they have been in a community for a long period of time that everybody knows about them, but that’s not true.”

Even if a survivor is aware of the services available in their community, it might not be a service that caters to their specific cultural needs.

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Brandy Lee-Williams, Keona Foote’s mother, signs a poster board “Mama and Daddy Always Love You” during a candlelight vigil for Keona Foote, her unborn child, and daughter Miyona Lee-Miller Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at Central Park in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

That was the case for Dondo. The nonprofit aimed at providing culturally specific domestic and sexual violence resources for African women began in 2015 after her own stay at a shelter in the Twin Cities.

“Intake was long. I didn’t have any help with the kids,” Dondo said of experience at a shelter with her twin toddlers and 3-year-old. “It was just a horrible experience. In that moment, I couldn't relate to the women in the shelter staff. I felt like I was in prison and was being watched.”

A lack of culturally specific foods and products can also make a stressful situation harder and not all traditional shelters take this into account, Dondo said. But cultural specificity isn’t limited to foods or products, it is also about having advocates and programs run by people with the shared community experience.

“We know that culturally specific programs are rooted in the resiliency of a community. What might look like a weakness in one community is actually the strength in the community,” Dondo said. “We’ve shown in our program that when women come through culturally specific programming, they have higher chances of being successful in that they don't go back to the abuser. Because the way we are providing our services is such that a woman can be in a space that feels like home for her. She gets to hold our hand and tell us how she needs us to help her. When you give the power back to a survivor like that, she owns her power and we have seen successful stories.”

Indigenous women and people face added barriers

For those who work serving Indigenous communities across the state, the publication of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force report to the Minnesota Legislature in December 2020 was a confirmation of what they’ve been seeing and experiencing for years.

Eighty-four percent of Indigenous women have experienced violence, including domestic violence, in their lifetime compared to 71% of non-Hispanic white women, according to the MMWI Task Force report.

While not specifically focused on intimate partner violence, the report details a number of root causes for missing and murdered indigenous women. Included in that list is colonization and historical trauma, racism, and sexual objectification of Indigenous women and girls.

“These root causes have led to increased systemic risk factors for experiencing violence and abuse among Indigenous women and girls, including poverty and lack of housing, involvement in the child welfare system and criminal justice system, being a victim of domestic violence, and being involved in prostitution and trafficking,” the report states.

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Brandy Lee-Williams, Keona Foote’s mother, speaks with Rochester Mayor Kim Norton during a candlelight vigil for Keona Foote, her unborn child, and daughter Miyona Lee-Miller Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at Central Park in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

The report states that law enforcement and criminal justice systems currently do not respond adequately to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases, and to sentence and rehabilitate offenders so they do not re-offend.

Indigenous women may not feel safe reporting domestic violence and other abuse because they fear additional legal trouble or child protection issues for their families. Attorney Katherine Eagle, executive director of the nonprofit Mending the Sacred Hoop in Duluth , said Native people reporting domestic violence often face an issue of credibility not seen as much in other communities.

“I think there are a lot of systemic pieces that spend a lot of time investigating victims more than how to understand them and support them or help them,” Eagle said. “I’ve worked in both Native and non-Native programs, it’s all very anecdotal, but I would definitely say that Native survivors experience more barriers because whatever system they are in is spending a lot of time questioning credibility, or their status, or their choices so they get derailed from the actual issue.”

Looking toward the future

Many who work to end domestic violence often say they hope to work themselves out of a job, envisioning a future without such violence. To get there, though, it will take the entire community.

“We all need to get together and just stop this. Prevent it before it even happens,” Lee-Williams said. “Keona and Miyona, their stolen lives will be used to prevent incidents and be used to save other lives. Their deaths are not in vain and they will not have died in vain.”

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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